Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Gordon on TLS

The esteemed David Gordon, editor of the always-worth-reading Mises Review, reviews The Last Superstition in the latest issue of Conservative Battleline. (See here.)


  1. Another very positive review - you should be pleased.

    Maybe I'm misunderstanding Mr. Gordon, but it struck me that he is wrong when he writes:

    "[Feser] does not claim, like supporters of Intelligent Design, that natural selection cannot fully account for biological change."

    To me, "natural selection" is a doctrine that assumes a purely mechanistic understanding of matter (no formal or final causes). By that definition, I'm guessing that you WOULD claim that "natural selection cannot fully account for biological change."

    Now, if you add formal and final causes into the mix, then it might make sense to say that natural selection can "fully account for biological change". Maybe that's what Mr. Gordon was saying (or implying) was your view.

    For myself, I've never had a problem with the idea of the evolution of species from a common ancestor. What I've always had a BIG problem with is the idea that this occurred solely due to random genetic mutations and natural selection. This idea has always struck me as being absurd on its face. Random genetic mutations and natural selection produce effects like birds with beaks a little longer or shorter, or moths a slightly different color - but not the mind-boggling gamut of different species on Earth, from microbes to blue whales to human beings. This is one way that your book really helped me. When I had absorbed the idea of formal and final causes in Nature, I thought, "Oh, yeah - if that's the case, then evolution actually makes sense." As a bonus, I also understood why the Catholic Church seems to have no problem with the idea of evolution (because they're Aristotelians).

  2. I'm a little confused about how the view of universals, forms, and concepts that TLS defends is supposed to work. In particular, I'm puzzled about perception. Unless I'm mistaken, it seems that on this view, perceiving the computer is a matter of understanding that the particular item in front of me is an instantiation of a particular kind of thing (namely, a computer). Perception thus crucially requires both sensation and a grasp of universals. Yet on this view, non-human animals are not able to grasp universals, and so it is hard to see how they can rightly be said to perceive anything -- yet it is certainly bizarre to say without qualification that animals do not perceive things (I'm assuming that we can pass over the Cartesian automata view of non-human animals; at any rate, Aristotle and Aquinas certainly would).

    It has also become fairly standard in cognitive science to say that non-human animals possess concepts. Now, that view may be mistaken because it adopts a mistaken view of concepts, but it is clear that at least some non-human animals can make some fairly sophisticated discriminations of different kinds of object, and that they can *learn* to do this rather than merely coming out of the womb with a nicely programmed set of instincts set to develop into reacting to stimuli in just those ways. Of course, those skills don't amount to the same kind of ability to understand and reason with and about concepts that human beings possess, and none of the philosophers and cognitive science buffs that I know say otherwise. What they insist on, though, is that the abilities of non-human animals do involve concepts, and that our concepts are not radically different from those, but substantially more complex because language (or whatever enables us to use language) allows us to reflect on those concepts themselves -- to conceptualize concepts, if you will. Humans share concepts with various species of non-human animals, but humans can think about those concepts, and thus can understand them in ways that non-human animals cannot.

    I admit that this sort of thing seems to me much less genuinely explanatory than it apparently does to its defenders. In particular, the attempt to explain human concepts through language seems to put the cart before the horse - it seems more natural to explain language by appeal to the ability to grasp concepts (however one wants to understand concepts). I'm inclined to the Aristotelian view, but I'm afraid I don't understand it well enough to be able to explain how it can account for non-human animal perception. If non-human animals don't have concepts or grasp universals, what are they doing when they make sophisticated discriminations and react intelligently to various kinds of thing?

  3. Warren,

    Yes, Gordon overstates things a bit. What is true is that, apart from the reference to intellect being inexplicable in Darwinian (or any other materialist) terms, TLS doesn't get into the question of what Darwinism can or cannot explain, because the argument of the book doesn't require doing so. But from an Aristotelian point of view, any purely mechanistic approach to biology is ultimately misguided.

    BTW, over at the group blog What's Wrong with the World, where I'm a contributor, we had quite a heated debate last week over ID vs. Aristotelico-Thomism. If you're interested, look for Francis Beckwith's post "The Truth about me and Intelligent Design" and look through the comments section.

  4. djr,

    On the Aristotelian view, though animals cannot form concepts in the strict sense, they are capable of forming general images analogous to the sort we can form, and these are entirely material. Think of the generic mental image you can form of a man, say, which, while it does not and cannot have the universality that the concept of man does (because it will always have some particulalizing features or other), nevertheless has a degree of generality. (Not that all images need be conscious mental images in this sense -- they could be some other manner of material representation.)

    Hence, to a first approximation, I would say that whatever it is that cognitive scientists take themselves to be discovering in both animals and us, it is this sort of thing rather than concepts in the strict sense.

  5. Dr. Feser, congratulations on the nice reviews and their near-universal encouragement for your sorely-needed approach in this modern age.

    I've run across both your and David Gordon's work in my travels, and there seems some cabal or karass that gets it, who are at least intelligible to each other while the rest of the world goes mad.


  6. Great discussion. It was interesting to watch you and the IDers continually argue right past each other. I'll start watching WWWtW regularly, I think.

    (BTW, how in the hell do you have time to teach and write books while carrying on discussions like that one???)

  7. Thanks Tom! Nice glasses.

    Warren, the answer is that I don't have the time (which is why I took so long to respond to your comment, sorry!)

  8. Can anyone tell me if David Gordon is a Christian? He comes across as at least being a theist. I've been reading some material over at the Mises Institute and am now curious. (There's quite a number of Christians [especially Catholics] over at the Mises Institute.)

  9. It is a great thing that the Thomists and the Austrian economists are talking. I enjoy everything from Mises and Hayek and Gordon...but I cringe a little when a priori economic laws are discussed. That's basically the only worry I have with them.