Thursday, April 11, 2024

Two problems with Dignitas Infinita

This week the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith (DDF) published the Declaration Dignitas Infinita, on the topic of human dignity.  I am as weary as anyone of the circumstance that it has now become common for new documents issued by the Vatican to be met with fault-finding.  But if the faults really are there, then we oughtn’t to blame the messenger.  And this latest document exhibits two serious problems: one with its basic premise, and the other with some of the conclusions it draws from it.

Wednesday, April 10, 2024

Western civilization's immunodeficiency disease

Liberalism is to the social order what AIDS is to the body.  By relegating the truths of natural law and divine revelation to the private sphere, it destroys the immune system of the body politic, opening the way to that body’s being ravaged by moral decay and ideological fanaticism.  I develop this theme in a new essay over at Postliberal Order.

Tuesday, April 2, 2024

Ed Piskor (1982-2024)

This week, cartoonist Ed Piskor committed suicide in the wake of the relentless online pillorying and overnight destruction of his career that followed upon allegations of sexual misconduct, of which he insisted he was innocent. Piskor’s work was not really to my taste, but I often enjoyed the Cartoonist Kayfabe YouTube channel he co-hosted. I was always impressed by the manifest love, respect, and appreciation he showed for the great comic book artists of the past. These are attractive and admirable attitudes to take toward those from whom one has learned.

The illusion of AI

My essay “The Illusion of Artificial Intelligence” appears in the latest issue of the Word on Fire Institute’s journal Evangelization & Culture.

Friday, March 29, 2024

Wishful thinking about Judas

In a recent article at Catholic Answers titled “Hope for Judas?” Jimmy Akin tells us that though he used to find convincing the traditional view that Judas is damned, it now seems to him that “we don’t have conclusive proof that Judas is in hell, and there is still a ray of hope for him.”  But there is a difference between hope and wishful thinking.  And with all due respect for Akin, it seems to me that given the evidence, the view that Judas may have been saved crosses the line from the former to the latter.

Jesuit Britain?

Did Spanish Scholastic thinkers influence British liberalism? You can now access my Religion and Liberty review of Projections of Spanish Jesuit Scholasticism on British Thought: New Horizons in Politics, Law, and Rights, edited by Leopoldo J. Prieto López and José Luis Cendejas Bueno.

Monday, March 25, 2024

Mind, matter, and malleability

Continuing our look at Jacques Maritain’s Three Reformers: Luther, Descartes, Rousseau, let’s consider some arresting passages on the conception of human nature the modern world has inherited from Descartes.  Maritain subtitles his chapter on the subject “The Incarnation of the Angel.”  As you might expect, this has in part to do with the Cartesian dualist’s view that the mind is a res cogitans or thinking substance whose nature is wholly incorporeal, so that it is only contingently related to the body.  But it is the Cartesian doctrine of innate ideas and its implications that Maritain is most interested in. 

Friday, March 15, 2024

The metaphysics of individualism

Modern moral discourse often refers to “persons” and to “individuals” as if the notions were more or less interchangeable.  But that is not the case.  In his book Three Reformers: Luther, Descartes, Rousseau (especially in chapter 1, section 3), Jacques Maritain notes several important differences between the concepts, and draws out their moral and social implications.

Traditionally, in Catholic philosophy, a person is understood to be a substance possessing intellect and will.  Intellect and will, in turn, are understood to be immaterial.  Hence, to be a person is ipso facto to be incorporeal – wholly so in the case of an angel, partially so in the case of a human being.  And qua partially incorporeal, human beings are partially independent of the forces that govern the rest of the material world.

Tuesday, March 5, 2024

When do popes speak ex cathedra?

Consider four groups that, one might think, couldn’t be more different: Pope Francis’s most zealous defenders; sedevacantists; Protestants; and Catholics who have recently left the Church (for Eastern Orthodoxy, say).  Something at least many of them have in common is a serious misunderstanding of the Catholic doctrine of papal infallibility – one which has led them to draw fallacious conclusions from recent papal teaching that seems to conflict with traditional Catholic doctrine (for example, on Holy Communion for those in invalid marriages, the death penalty, and blessings for same-sex couples).  Some of Pope Francis’s defenders insist that, since these teachings came from a pope, they must therefore be consistent with traditional doctrine, appearances notwithstanding.  Sedevacantists argue instead that, given that these teachings are not consistent with traditional doctrine, Francis must not be a true pope.  Some Protestants, meanwhile, argue that since Francis is a true pope but the teachings in question are (they judge) not consistent with traditional Christian doctrine, Catholic claims about papal infallibility have been falsified.  Finally, some Catholics have concluded the same thing, and left the Church as a result.

Sunday, February 25, 2024

What counts as magisterial teaching?

Popes speak infallibly when they either proclaim some doctrine ex cathedra, or reiterate some doctrine that has already been taught infallibly by virtue of being a consistent teaching of the ordinary magisterium of the Church for millennia.  Even when papal teaching is not infallible, it is normally owed “religious assent.”  However, the Church recognizes exceptions.  The instruction Donum Veritatis, issued during the pontificate of St. John Paul II, acknowledges that “it could happen that some Magisterial documents might not be free from all deficiencies” so that “a theologian may, according to the case, raise questions regarding the timeliness, the form, or even the contents of magisterial interventions.”  Donum Veritatis explicitly distinguishes such respectful criticism from “dissent” from perennial Church teaching.

Monday, February 19, 2024

A comment on comments

Dear reader, if it seems your comment has not been approved, sometimes it actually has been approved even if you don’t see it.  The reason is that once a combox reaches 200 comments, the Blogger software will not show any new comments made after that unless you click “Load more…” at the bottom of the comments page.  The trouble is that this is in small print and easily overlooked.  In the screen cap above, I’ve circled in red what you should look for.

Saturday, February 17, 2024

Avicenna, Aquinas, and Leibniz on the argument from contingency

Avicenna, Aquinas, and Leibniz all present versions of what would today be called the argument from contingency for the existence of a divine necessary being.  Their versions are interestingly different, despite Aquinas’s having been deeply influenced by Avicenna and Leibniz’s having been familiar with Aquinas.  I think all three of them are good arguments, though I won’t defend them here.  I discussed Avicenna’s argument in an earlier post.  I defend Aquinas’s in my book Aquinas, at pp. 90-99.  I defend Leibniz’s in chapter 5 of my book Five Proofs of the Existence of God.  Here I merely want to compare and contrast the arguments.

Wednesday, February 7, 2024

The heresy with a thousand faces

In a new article at Postliberal Order, I discuss the disturbing parallels between the woke phenomenon and the medieval Catharist or Albigensian heresy, a movement so fanatical and virulent that the preaching of the Dominicans could not entirely eliminate it and Church and state judged military action to be necessary.

Saturday, January 27, 2024

Immortal souls at West Point

Had a great time visiting the United States Military Academy at West Point this week for a Thomistic Institute talk on the theme “Do You Have an Immortal Soul?” Thank you TI and cadets!

Monday, January 22, 2024

Voluntarism in The Vanishing

The reputation of 1993’s The Vanishing has suffered because critics judge it inferior to the 1988 Dutch movie of which it was a remake.  But considered on its own terms, it is a solid enough little thriller.  Jeff Bridges is effectively creepy as the oddball family-man-cum-kidnapper Barney Cousins.  I had reason to re-watch the flick the other day, and was struck by what I take to be an underlying theme of the contrast between voluntarist and intellectualist conceptions of human action.

Wednesday, January 17, 2024

Avicenna’s flying man

Peter Adamson’s new book Ibn Sīnā (Avicenna): A Very Short Introduction is an excellent primer on the great medieval Islamic philosopher.  After a biographical chapter, it treats Avicenna’s views on logic and epistemology, philosophical anthropology, science, and natural theology, and closes with a discussion of his influence on later philosophy and theology.  Among the things readers will find useful is the book’s discussion of Avicenna’s famous “flying man” argument.  Let’s take a look.

Wednesday, January 10, 2024

Progress report

My friends, it exists. More news later.

Jesuit Britain?

My review of the anthology Projections of Spanish Jesuit Scholasticism on British Thought: New Horizons in Politics, Law, and Rights, edited by Leopoldo Prieto López and José Luis Cendejas Bueno, appears in the Winter 2023 issue of Religion and Liberty.

Tuesday, January 2, 2024

New Year’s open thread

Let’s open the New Year with an open thread.  Now’s the time at last to bring up that otherwise off-topic comment that keeps getting deleted, or anything else you like.  From Art Nouveau to Art Blakey, from presidents to presentism, from sci-fi to Wi-Fi to hi-fis, everything is on topic.  Just keep it civil and classy.  Previous open threads collected here.

Friday, December 29, 2023

What is a “couple”?

In my recent article on the controversy over Fiducia Supplicans, I noted three problems with the document’s qualified permission of blessings for “couples” of a same-sex or other “irregular” kind.  First, the document is not consistent with the Vatican’s 2021 statement on the subject, which prohibited such blessings, nor consistent even with itself.  Second, its incoherence makes abuses of its permission inevitable, despite the qualifications.  Third, the implicature carried by the act of issuing this permission “sends the message” that the Church in some way approves of such couples, even if this message was not intended.  In an interview with The Pillar, Cardinal Fernández addresses the controversy, but unfortunately, his remarks exacerbate rather than resolve the problems.

Friday, December 22, 2023

The scandal of Fiducia Supplicans

By now many readers of this blog will likely have heard about Fiducia Supplicans and the worldwide controversy it has generated, which may end up being even more bitter and momentous than the many other controversies sparked over the last decade by the words and actions of Pope Francis.  The Declaration, issued by the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith (DDF) under its new Prefect Cardinal Víctor Manuel Fernández, for the first time allows for “the possibility of blessings for couples in irregular situations and for couples of the same sex.”  This revises the statement on the matter issued in 2021 under Fernández’s predecessor Cardinal Ladaria, which reaffirmed the Church’s traditional teaching that “it is not licit to impart a blessing on relationships, or partnerships, even stable, that involve sexual activity outside of marriage… as is the case of the unions between persons of the same sex.”

Sunday, December 17, 2023

The Aristotelian proof on Within Reason

Some time back, Alex O’Connor and I recorded a discussion of the Aristotelian argument from motion for the existence of God, for his Within Reason podcast.  The episode is now available on YouTube.

Tuesday, December 12, 2023

On Vallier, Vermeule, and straw men (Updated)

Over at his Substack, Kevin Vallier responds to my recent review at The Josias of his book All the Kingdoms of the World.  Vallier claims that I “mislead the reader” vis-à-vis his characterization of the views of Adrian Vermeule.  In particular, says Vallier, “Feser… makes several claims that make it sound as if I think Vermeule endorses violence and authoritarianism.  Feser does note at one point that I say Vermeule does not want coercion.  But that leaves the impression that I only say this in passing.”  He then cites five remarks from his book that he says show that he clearly acknowledges that Vermeule does not endorse violence.

Sunday, November 26, 2023

Ryle on microphysics and the everyday world

Science, we’re often told, gives us a description of the world radically at odds with common sense.  Physicist Arthur Eddington’s famous “two tables” example illustrates the theme.  There is, on the one hand, the table familiar from everyday experience – the extended, colored, solid, stable thing you might be sitting at as you read this.  Then there’s the scientific table – a vast aggregate of colorless particles in fields of force, mostly empty space rather a single continuous object, and revealed by theory rather than sensory perception.  What is the relationship between them?  Should we say, as is often done, that the first table is an illusion and only the second real?

Saturday, November 18, 2023

What is free speech for?

In a new article at Postliberal Order, I discuss the teleological foundations of, and limitations on, the right to free speech, as these are understood from the perspective of traditional natural law theory’s approach to questions about natural rights.

Thursday, November 9, 2023

All One in Christ at Public Discourse

At Public Discourse, John F. Doherty kindly reviews my book All One in Christ: A Catholic Critique of Racism and Critical Race Theory.  From the review:

In Feser’s book, Catholics, other Christians, and even non-Christians will find much to help them confront CRT and the perennial challenges of living in a racially diverse society

Critical race theorists routinely use confusing, tough-to-pin-down logical fallacies.  Feser does us the service of laying these fallacies out methodically and succinctly

For anyone who knows nothing about CRT, All One in Christ is an excellent place to start.  It has a decidedly negative perspective on the movement, but Feser takes pains to be fair to his opponents.

Saturday, November 4, 2023

The Thomist's middle ground in natural theology

The Aristotelian-Thomistic tradition holds that knowledge must begin with sensory experience but that it can nevertheless go well beyond anything that experience could directly reveal.  Its empiricism is of a moderate kind consistent with the high ambitions of traditional metaphysics.  For example, beginning a posteriori with the fact that change occurs, it claims to be able to demonstrate the existence of a divine Prime Unmoved Mover.  Similarly demonstrable, it maintains, are the immateriality and immortality of the soul.

Two crucial components of this picture of human knowledge are the theses that concepts are irreducible to sensations and mental images, but can nevertheless be abstracted from imagery by the intellect.  As I have discussed before, a key difference between the Aristotelian-Thomistic position on the one hand and early modern forms of rationalism and empiricism on the other is that each of the latter kept one of these Aristotelian-Thomistic theses while rejecting the other.  Rationalism maintained the thesis that concepts are irreducible to sensations and mental images, but concluded that many or all concepts therefore could not in any way be derived from them.  Hence, rationalists concluded, many or all concepts must be innate.  Modern empiricism held on to the thesis that concepts derive from mental imagery, but concluded that they must not really be distinct from them.  Hence the modern empiricist tendency toward “imagism,” the view that a concept just is an image (or an image together with a general term).

Tuesday, October 24, 2023

Cartwright on reductionism in science

In her superb recent book A Philosopher Looks at Science, Nancy Cartwright revisits some of the longstanding themes of her work in the philosophy of science.  In an earlier post, I discussed what she has to say in the first chapter about theory and experiment.  Let’s look now at what she says in her second chapter about reductionism, of which she has long been critical. 

Reductionism does not have quite the same hold in philosophy of science that it once did, having been subjected to powerful attack not only from Cartwright, but from Paul Feyerabend, John Dupré, and many others.  (I discuss the anti-reductionist literature in detail in Aristotle’s Revenge.)  Still, the idea that whatever is real is somehow ultimately nothing more than what can in principle be described in the language of a completed physics exerts a powerful hold on many.  Cartwright cites James Ladyman and Don Ross as adherents of this view, and Alex Rosenberg is another prominent advocate.  As Cartwright notes, in contemporary writing about science, the lure of reductionism is especially evident in discussions of the purported implications of neuroscience for topics like free will.

Thursday, October 12, 2023

Thomism and the Nouvelle Théologie

My review of Jon Kirwan and Matthew Minerd’s important new anthology The Thomistic Response to the Nouvelle Théologie appears in the November 2023 issue of First Things.

Tuesday, October 10, 2023

A little logic is a dangerous thing

Some famous and lovely lines from Alexander Pope’s “An Essay on Criticism” observe:

A little learning is a dangerous thing;

Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring.

There shallow draughts intoxicate the brain,

And drinking largely sobers us again.

Think of the person who has read one book on a subject and suddenly thinks he knows everything.  Or the beginning student of philosophy whose superficial encounter with skeptical arguments leads him to deny that we can know anything.  A deeper inquiry, if only it were pursued, would in each case yield a more balanced judgement.

Monday, October 2, 2023

Michael F. Flynn (1947-2023)

It is with much sadness that I report that Michael F. Flynn, well-known science fiction writer and longtime friend of this blog, has passed away.  Mike’s daughter made the announcement at his blog yesterday

That Mike will be remembered for his work in science fiction goes without saying.  But it is worth emphasizing too that he was an irreplaceable presence in the blogosphere, who showed the potential of the medium for work of substance and lasting value.  I doubt he ever posted anything that didn’t reward his readers’ attention, with writing that wore lightly Mike’s learning not only in the sciences but also in philosophy, theology, and history.  He was for many years a regular and welcome contributor to the comments section of this blog, raising the tone simply by virtue of his presence.  One of the things I most admired about him was the calm and patient manner with which he would respond to even the most obnoxious and ignorant interlocutors.  He never had to say that he knew what he was talking about, while his opponent didn’t.  He simply showed it by typing up a few sentences.

Wednesday, September 27, 2023

Aquinas on the will’s fixity after death

My essay “Aquinas on the Fixity of the Will After Death” appears in New Blackfriars.  (It’s behind a paywall, I’m afraid.)  Here’s the abstract:

Aquinas holds that after death, the human soul can no longer change its basic orientation either toward God or away from him.  He takes this to be knowable not only from divine revelation but by purely philosophical reasoning.  The heart of his position is that the basic orientation of an angelic will is fixed immediately after its creation, and that the human soul after death is relevantly like an angel.  This article expounds and defends Aquinas's position, paying special attention to the action theory underlying it.

Tuesday, September 26, 2023

Augustine on false community

In a new article at Postliberal Order, I discuss the perverse forms of human community identified and criticized by Augustine in the Confessions, and how what he has to say applies to our times.

Wednesday, September 20, 2023

The Death Penalty and Genesis 9:6: A Reply to Mastnjak (Guest article by Timothy Finlay)

Genesis 9:6 famously states: “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for God made man in his own image” (RSV). This has traditionally been understood by Jews and Christians alike as sanctioning capital punishment. In a recent article at Church Life Journal, Nathan Mastnjak has argued on grammatical grounds for an alternative reading of the passage, on which it does not support the death penalty. What follows is a guest article replying to Mastnjak by Timothy Finlay, who is Professor of Biblical Studies at Azusa Pacific University and a member of the National Association of Professors of Hebrew.

In his article, Nathan Mastnjak writes, “The translation ‘by a human shall that person’s blood be shed’ is not strictly impossible, but given the norms of Classical Hebrew grammar, it should be viewed as prima facie unlikely especially since there is a much more plausible translation that is contextually appropriate and grammatically mundane.” This has it completely backward. It is Mastnjak’s claim that the ב in Genesis 9:6 be construed as expressing price or exchange that, while not strictly impossible, flies in the face of Hebrew lexicons and grammars – in contrast to the standard translations (both Jewish and Christian) which are contextually and canonically appropriate and grammatically mundane.

Sunday, September 10, 2023

Hartshorne on the project of natural theology

Process theism denies some of the key attributes ascribed to God by classical theism, such as immutability and impassibility.  Charles Hartshorne (1897-2000) was among its chief representatives.  As a Thomist, I am the opposite of sympathetic to process theism.  However, I’ve always found Hartshorne an interesting thinker.  Many twentieth-century philosophers had a regrettable tendency toward overspecialization, and also often ignored all but a handful of thinkers of the past.  Hartshorne, by contrast, was a philosopher of the old-fashioned stripe.  He addressed a wide variety of philosophical problems, was deeply read in the history of philosophy, and that history informed his work on contemporary issues.  He was also old-fashioned insofar as his theism (flawed though it was from my point of view) was integral to his more general metaphysics and ethics.  Like the greatest thinkers of the past, Hartshorne knew that the question of God was at the very heart of philosophy, not something that could be ignored by any serious philosopher, or at best tacked on to an otherwise complete system.

Wednesday, August 30, 2023

Fastiggi on Capital Punishment and the Change to the Catechism, Part II

In 2018, Pope Francis authorized a revision of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which now states that “the death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person.”  This might be read as implying that capital punishment is intrinsically wrong, which would contradict scripture and two thousand years of magisterial teaching.  As a result, the change has been criticized as at least badly formulated.  In a recent four-part series at Where Peter Is, theologian Robert Fastiggi criticizes the critics of the revision.  The first part of my response to Fastiggi addressed what he has to say about the obligations of Catholics vis-à-vis the Magisterium of the Church.  In this second part, I will address what he says about the teaching of scripture, the Fathers, and previous popes on the topic of capital punishment.

Saturday, August 26, 2023

Fastiggi on Capital Punishment and the Change to the Catechism, Part I

In 2018, Pope Francis revised the section of the Catechism of the Catholic Church dealing with the topic of capital punishment, so that it now states that “the death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person.”  Flatly to assert that capital punishment is “an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person” might be read as implying that the death penalty is intrinsically evil, or immoral of its very nature and not just under the wrong circumstances.  Such a claim would contradict scripture and two millennia of consistent magisterial teaching.  For this reason, the revision has been criticized as at least badly formulated, even by some Catholic thinkers who support the abolition of capital punishment.  For example, after the revision was announced, an appeal was made by forty-five prominent Catholic academics and clergy to the cardinals of the Catholic Church to call upon the pope clearly to reaffirm traditional teaching on the subject.

Wednesday, August 23, 2023

Aquinas and Nietzsche on the politics of envy

Recently, I joined Postliberal Order as a regular contributor.  Today, my essay “Against the Politics of Envy” appears at the site.  It discusses Aquinas’s account of the nature and effects of the sin of envy, Nietzsche’s account of the nature and effects of ressentiment, and how woke politics is clearly an expression of envious ressentiment as Aquinas and Nietzsche understand it.