Wednesday, December 31, 2008

The Metaphysics of the Martini

Since it is New Years Eve, it seemed appropriate to reprint this September 2006 post from the late, lamented Right Reason blog. (The original can be found here, courtesy of the Wayback Machine.) Happy New Year! Philosophize responsibly. New posts coming soon.

The philosophy of booze is a greatly underdeveloped subdiscipline within our field. This is surprising given that the greatest philosophers had a notorious fondness for drink, as a Prof. Monty Python has documented in a famous scholarly study of the matter. As for my own efforts, I’m afraid they’ve been stalled by the failure of the Seagram’s corporation to reply to an application for a research grant I put in some months ago. I suspect this has something to do with the fact that Edgar Bronfman is a Democrat who doesn’t want his money going to some right-wing philosopher. And this despite the fact that I made it clear that the grant should be paid in gin rather than cash. How disgusting it is when politics gets in the way of serious academic research.

Now that I’m a blogger, however, this work can finally proceed. The usual obstacles to publishing bold and original ideas (peer review, valid arguments, evidence, grammar and spelling, that sort of thing) don’t apply in cyberspace. And of course, Wikipedia has eliminated the need for time-consuming research trips to the library, bookstore, or even the bookshelves here in my office - though the research relevant to the subject at hand is, in any case, of the sort that comes in liquid form. As a matter fact, I’m doing a little researching (a lot of researching, actually) as I write this.

Now as we all know, a real philosopher has to specialize. Minutiae are where it’s at. The “big” topics that used to occupy the philosophers of old (pre-analytic mediocrities like Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, Kant, et al.) - God, the soul, good and evil, and so forth - are, after all, so unserious and unscientific. Far better to devote one’s entire career to studying something really meaty and interesting, like the epistemic closure principle or the possibility of unsensed sense-data. That way one’s work is sure to reach a significant audience, such as the twelve people who eagerly leaf through each new issue of Noûs.

For my part, I’ve decided to specialize in the branch of the philosophy of booze known as “martiniology,” a.k.a. the metaphysics of the martini. I realize, of course, that there is a danger that even this may be too ambitious; indeed, I’ve considered focusing on something more narrow and manageable, such as the famous and notoriously thorny “olive problem” (about which I’ll be saying something below). But I’ve done just so much research on this - and believe you me, I mean good, naturalistic, empirical hands-on research, most of it in the last two or three hours - that I must say I’m feeling pretty confident. So here goes.

As my long-time readers know (both of them, I think), I am a Thomist, indeed an “analytical Thomist.” (What that means is that instead of just giving an argument, like an old-fashioned Thomist would do, I make my arguments extra rigorous by sticking numbers in parentheses in front of all the premises.) The key problem of metaphysics, then, is, for me, to identify the substantial form of a thing, the unchanging essence that makes it the kind of thing it is. And my considered position is that the presence of gin is part of the substantial form of the martini. Among the implications of this is that a so-called “vodka martini” is, James Bond notwithstanding, simply a metaphysical impossibility, like a round square. (Don’t even ask about such ontological monstrosities as the “Chocolatini,” which sounds like something out of one of Meinong’s drunken nightmares.)

Now while as a Thomist I am fully aware that our knowledge of essences must in general be largely empirically based, I believe that it in this case our metaphysical thesis can be laid down a priori, on the basis of a direct intuition of the martinian quiddity. (Though as I have indicated, and as my hepatologist can testify, I have in any event gathered a considerable amount of empirical confirming evidence.) At the very least, this thesis has one undeniable advantage over all others: it saves time that would otherwise have to be devoted to detailed argumentation, precious time better spent doing (ahem) research.

Of course, there are those who hold to a wholly conventionalist theory of the martini. For example, some scholars have held that certain speech-acts, such as a (sincere) utterance of “Shit, we’re out of gin,” can transform a vodka-based concoction into a real martini, at least for the duration of the time it takes one’s wife to rush to and from Vendome’s to fetch a bottle of Tanqueray. I was once briefly sympathetic to this view myself - last Thursday, in fact, when we ran out of gin. But the fallacy was evident to me once the olive had been consumed and Rachel returned from the liquor store. (If you can’t see the fallacy too, that’s your problem, Jack; why don’t you take a frigging logic class before questioning us experts, OK?)

The other main metaphysical component of the martini is vermouth - at least enough that you can taste it, but never so much that the gin doesn’t dominate. Now of course, you wouldn’t know this from the writings of those desiccated Quinean martiniologists, who, following their master’s well-known “taste for desert landscapes,” insist that a true martini is maximally dry, i.e. that almost no vermouth at all should be used. Hence one hears of bizarre practices like swishing around the vermouth in the martini glass and then disposing of it before the gin is poured in, or using an atomizer to ensure that nothing more than a bare mist of vermouth is allowed to dilute the gin. (Oh what decadence, what affectation Quine’s naturalism hath wrought!)

This absurd position can be refuted by a simple reductio-cum-sorites argument. If a mere mist or residue of vermouth makes a martini, then surely a microscopic drop of vermouth does too. And if a mere microscopic drop does - despite its being undetectable to the taste buds - then a glass of cold gin entirely devoid of vermouth does too. But of course, a glass of cold gin qua cold gin just isn’t a martini at all. Hence neither is a glass of cold gin with a mere drop of vermouth in it. Etc. (I leave the details as homework, since I’m busy doing some more research just now.)

Oh, before I forget: it is also part of the essence of the martini that it be cold. And I mean arctic cold, as close to frozen as possible. Use a lot of ice, and chill the glass in the freezer for a good fifteen minutes. And (again, pace James Bond - how’d this guy ever become a spy, anyway?) it should be stirred, not shaken. Unless you’re in a hurry, then shake away, but in a circular motion so as to simulate stirring. Call it “twin earth stirring” if it helps. (It’s sure helping me just now, I can tell you.)

Now (deep breath) the olive problem. Look, it’s almost three AM, which means bedtime is approaching, and there are some classic 80s videos I’ve been meaning to check out on YouTube. Plus, a little more research, to make sure I sleep soundly. So let’s make this quick. You’ve got to have an olive if it’s really gonna be a martini, OK? No onions, and (give me a break) no lemon rinds. This is a grown-up drink, people. Show some class. And at most two olives (though yes, they can be big fat ones). Anything more would be vulgar. [Insert argument here, blah blah blah, whatever.]

Whew, feeling sleepy…

Alright, now let’s consider some possible objections to my account. Many will object that it is boring, conventional, and dogmatic. To that I can only reply: Look, I’m a conservative, a Catholic, and a Thomist; so what the hell did you expect?

But this naturally leads us to the $64 question, viz. whether one’s martini metaphysics is a reliable guide to one’s politics. And the answer, of course, is no. There’s no connection whatsoever. The very idea is preposterous. Why are you asking me this?

“Feser, you disappoint us,” I can hear my critics saying. “Its evident preposterousness has never stopped you from taking a position in the past - why start now?”

OK, then, in the spirit of Popper I’ll make this bold conjecture: someone is a conservative if and only if he agrees with my martini recipe. (And if a liberal agrees with it, that just shows he’s really a conservative. So there. Vote accordingly next time, OK pal?)

Wow, am I beat… exhausted! Can’t think straight. Better call it a night…

Post entry. Logout… in martini veritas…

…colorless… green ideas… sleep furiously…


(Coming next: the metaphysics of Scotch, wherein it is demonstrated inter alia that the fad for single malts is no mere yuppie affectation, but portents nothing less than a revival of Western civilization and the final eschatological victory of all that is good and decent.)

Monday, December 29, 2008

Coffey's Ontology

Readers sometimes ask me to recommend a general introduction to Aristotelian-Thomistic metaphysics. Unfortunately, the best such works are the Neo-Scholastic manuals of the pre-Vatican II period, now long out of print. Some of them, though, like R. P. Phillips' two-volume Modern Thomistic Philosophy or John McCormick's two-volume Scholastic Metaphysics, can be purchased fairly cheaply from online second-hand book dealers. Then there is Google books, through which at least one such work can be readily accessed: Peter Coffey's Ontology, or The Theory of Being: A General Introduction to Metaphysics. Enjoy.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Warby on Philosophy of Mind

Over at the online edition of Australia's Quadrant magazine, Michael Warby kindly reviews my book Philosophy of Mind. As Warby notes, the book is now out in a revised edition. (The first edition has the subtitle "A Short Introduction" and a surrealist cover illustration. The new edition, pictured at left, has a "brain in a vat" cover with the new subtitle "A Beginner's Guide." The only difference in content is the addition of an eight-page Postscript to the new edition.)

You can find a sample chapter here. Like the book in general (which first appeared in 2005), it is perhaps a tad too Cartesian and "representationalist" in spirit. Were I writing it today, I would make it more thoroughly Aristotelian-Thomist. (The philosophy of mind related portions of The Last Superstition reflect my transition toward a more consistent Thomism.) Still, Cartesianism is better than materialism, to say the very least.

Anyway, for interested readers, here is the complete table of contents:

Preface and acknowledgments

1. Perception

Dreams, demons, and brains in vats
Indirect realism
Appearance and reality, mind and matter
Further reading

2. Dualism

Minds and brains, apples and oranges
The indivisibility argument
The conceivability argument
The interaction problem
Further reading

3. Materialism

Tables, chairs, rocks, and trees
Reduction and supervenience
Cause and effect
The identity theory
The burden of proof
Further reading

4. Qualia

The inverted spectrum
The “Chinese nation” argument
The zombie argument
The knowledge argument
Property dualism
Further reading

5. Consciousness

Representationalism and Higher-Order Theories
Russellian identity theory and neutral monism
Troubles with Russellianism
A more consistent Russellianism
Consciousness, intentionality, and subjectivity
The binding problem
Further reading

6. Thought

Reasons and causes
The computational/representational theory of thought
The argument from reason
The Chinese Room argument
The mind-dependence of computation
Thought and consciousness
Further reading

7. Intentionality

Naturalistic theories of meaning
1. Conceptual role theories
2. Causal theories
3. Biological theories
4. Instrumentalist theories
Eliminativism again
The indeterminacy of the physical
1. Representations
2. Concepts
3. Formal reasoning
Materialism, meaning, and metaphysics
Further reading

8. Persons

Personal identity
Consequences of mechanism
Thomistic dualism
Philosophy of mind and the rest of philosophy
Further reading

Postscript (2006)


Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Some Christmas reading

During the Neo-Scholastic period prior to Vatican II, Fr. Joseph Pohle produced a widely used series of textbooks on theology, which were translated into English and edited by Arthur Preuss. These "Pohle-Preuss" volumes were long out of print, though reprints are now available from various publishers. But via the magic of Google books, I now provide four of them to you free of charge. They make excellent reading for someone interested in a solid overview of basic, traditional Christian theology, informed by sound philosophy and devoid of the woolliness that afflicts even much of what passes for orthodox theological writing these days. Since it is Christmas, you might start with Christology. Then work your way through God: His Knowability, Essence and Attributes, The Divine Trinity, and Eschatology.

Merry Christmas!

Thursday, December 18, 2008


Ars Technica reports the following development in neuroscience (Hat tip: The Corner):

The advent of techniques like PET scans and functional MRI has enabled researchers to observe the brain in action with a precision that is unprecedented. One of the interesting aspects of these studies is that we can now actually perform a limited version of what might be called mind reading: identifying what's going on in the brain without having the owner of said brain describe it. In the latest development in the field of neuroimaging, researchers have watched the brain of someone watching an image, and were actually able to perform reasonable reconstructions of the image.

Pretty impressive. But does it amount to a kind of “mindreading,” as the author says? Does it show (what the author does not say, but which many readers will no doubt infer) that the having of a mental image can be identified with a certain kind of brain process? Not so fast. Here is a good example of how empirical discoveries which might seem to provide answers to philosophical questions actually presuppose such answers.

Notice first that no one who used fancy scientific instruments to observe the image on someone’s retina would regard this as an instance of “mindreading,” even though such an observation would under normal circumstances allow the observer to infer what sort of visual experience the subject was having. So why should observing some brain process associated with a certain sort of visual experience count as “mindreading”? The answer, of course, is that researchers assume there to be a connection between mental events and neural events that is more direct and intimate than that which exists between (say) mental events and events occurring within the eye.

Now that assumption may be correct – and I think it is in fact correct – but it is an assumption rather than something observed in the data, and more to the point it is an assumption with philosophical, and not just empirical, content. Recall my earlier post about Karl Popper’s critique of causal theories of the mind: Before we can identify any causal relation between the brain and the external world as having any sort of explanatory force vis-à-vis the mind, we have to be able to identify some particular external event as “the beginning” of the relevant causal chain, and some event within the brain as “the end.” Yet, as Popper argues, there is nothing in the bare empirical facts that can justify such identifications, nothing that determines this particular point as a “beginning” or that particular point as an “end.” (In the case at hand, there is nothing in the bare empirical facts that determines that it is such-and-such brain processes, rather than the image on the retina, or rather than some different event altogether, that counts as the terminus of the relevant causal chain.) Such identifications are interest-relative and thus non-objective – or at any rate they are, I would add, if we assume a “mechanistic” conception of the natural world.

To avoid the conclusion that they are interest-relative and non-objective (and the idealism or anti-realism this would seem to imply), we have to return to the Aristotelian idea that natural objects and processes have essences, that these essences entail inherent powers, and that these powers are defined by ends or goals toward which the objects or processes “point” as a final cause. In the case at hand, we have to assume (among other things) that the perceptual process inherently “points to” and thus of its nature terminates in, not the generation of a retinal image, not some set of neural events further down the line from the ones the researchers cited in the article were focusing on, but rather in those specific neural processes themselves. Here as elsewhere (as I argue at length in The Last Superstition), despite the “mechanistic” conception of nature officially and unreflectively endorsed by most scientists, the actual practice of empirical science, and certainly the intelligibility of its results, presupposes something like Aristotelian essentialism.

Secondly, it is also worth emphasizing that the researchers in question have (quite obviously) not literally been looking at any subject’s mental images or sensations. They have instead merely inferred from certain brain processes that the image must have such-and-such a character. Hence they have not discovered anything that need trouble any Cartesian dualist, since such dualists would (going back to Descartes himself) happily concede, and indeed emphasize, that there are neural processes causally correlated with various mental events, and insist only that the correlation does not and cannot entail that the relevant mental events are either identical with or metaphysically supervenient upon any neural events.

In any event, from an Aristotelian-Thomistic point of view, results of the sort cited in the article are not only no evidence against dualism, but indeed just the sort of thing we should expect. For unlike Cartesians, Aristotelians and Thomists regard sensation and imagination as entirely material processes, not immaterial ones. Hence even an outright identification of (and not just correlation between) the having of a perceptual experience or mental image and a certain neural event would be no evidence at all against the claim that the mind is immaterial. For the defining aspect of the mind is intellect, and intellect is irreducible to sensation, imagination, or indeed any other material process.

The main reason has to do with the differences between the objects of intellect on the one hand, and the objects of sensation and imagination on the other. For one thing, sensations and mental images are always concrete and particular, while the concepts grasped by the intellect are abstract and universal. A given mental image of a man, for example, is always going to have features that apply at most to many men, but never to men universally; it will be of either a fat or a thin man, of a bald man or a man with hair, of a tall man or a short man, etc., and thus be limited in its application in a way that the universal idea of man is not. Secondly, images are always vague and indistinct when their objects are more complex, while the ideas grasped by the intellect are clear and distinct however complex their objects. To take a famous example from Descartes, no mental image you can form of a chiliagon (a thousand-sided polygon) is clearly different from your mental image of a 997-sided figure or a 1001-sided figure, but the concept of a chiliagon grasped by your intellect is clearly different from the concept of a 997-sided figure or a 1001-sided figure. Thirdly, there are things we simply cannot form a mental image of which the intellect can nevertheless grasp the idea of: abstractions like economics, law, or love; temporal relationships; logical relationships like entailment, conjunction, disjunction, and negation; and so on.

Since the objects of the intellect differ in kind from mental images and sensations, it follows that to detect neural patterns of the sort described in the article, whether or not it amounts to “reading” what someone is sensing or imagining, does not and cannot amount to “reading” what is going on in their intellects, and thus does not and cannot amount to reading their thoughts, if we confine “thought” to what the intellect does when it makes judgments and inferences, which involve the grasp of concepts.

Might the detection of some other kind of neural pattern amount to “reading” someone’s thoughts? No, for (among other things) the reasons outlined in my series of posts on short arguments for dualism. In particular (as I argued here), given a mechanistic (i.e. final causality-denying) conception of the material world, any material process must be devoid of intentionality. But thoughts are inherently intentional. Hence nothing detectable in any purely material processes (again, where “material” is understood in mechanistic terms) could possibly reveal the content of any thought.

Now if we reject a mechanistic conception of the material world and acknowledge the existence of final causes, then a kind of intentionality does become detectable within the material world after all. But now another consideration comes into play. For (as I argued here) the specific kind of intentionality involved in conceptual thought still cannot be accounted for in material terms, because material processes are always inherently indeterminate while at least some of our thoughts are not. Conceptual thought, the characteristic activity of the intellect, is (unlike sensation and imagination) thus essentially immaterial. Hence its presence can never even in principle be detected merely by examining someone’s brain.

(As indicated in that earlier post, this is, as James Ross has pointed out, the upshot of arguments like Quine’s famous argument concerning the inscrutability of reference and Kripke’s “quus” argument, though materialist writers like Quine conclude, not that thoughts are therefore immaterial, but rather – and incoherently – that none of our thoughts has any determinate meaning. I say “incoherently” because – again, as Ross points out and as I said in the earlier post – to deny that we have any thoughts with determinate meaning is in effect to deny among other things that we ever reason in accordance with valid forms of inference, which undermines any argument anyone, including Quine himself, has ever given.)

This leaves it open that, at least given certain background assumptions, we might guess with some measure of probability what someone is thinking. Indeed, we can do that already, just by observing a person’s behavior and interpreting it in light of what we know about him in particular, his circumstances, human nature in general, and so forth. And of course, further knowledge of the brain might give us even further, and more refined, resources for making inferences of this sort. But what it cannot do even in principle is fix a single determinate interpretation of those thoughts, or reduce them entirely to neural activity. So, no entirely empirical methods could, even in principle, allow us to “read” someone’s thoughts in anything more than the loose and familiar sense in which we can already do so.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Horwitz on The Cambridge Companion to Hayek

In the latest issue of History of Political Economy, economist Steven Horwitz describes my recent edited volume The Cambridge Companion to Hayek as "a very good collection of original essays... For scholars not especially familiar with Hayek's work who are looking for a one-volume introduction to his thought in all of its wide range, The Cambridge Companion would work very nicely."

From some earlier reviews: "Thoroughly informative and stimulating" (National Review); "Highly recommended" (Journal of Markets and Morality); "The best collection of articles on Hayek assembled to date. All future serious Hayek scholarship will have to incorporate this volume... It is a tour de force" (Liberty).

Order your copy here.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Oderberg on hylemorphic dualism

The arguments presented in my recent series of posts on dualism have been more or less ecumenical. That is to say, they have not attempted to defend any particular form of dualism, but merely tried to show that the mind must be immaterial, leaving open the question of how exactly the immaterial mind relates to the material side of human nature.

But as readers of The Last Superstition and Philosophy of Mind know, I do not in fact think that all forms of dualism are equally defensible. The version I would myself defend is neither Cartesian substance dualism, nor property dualism, nor emergent dualism, but rather hylemorphic dualism, so called because it is informed by hylemorphism, the Aristotelian-Thomistic-Scholastic view that material substances are composites of form and matter. (The theory is also sometimes called Thomistic dualism, after Thomas Aquinas, its most significant advocate historically.)

David S. Oderberg (who seems to have invented the label "hylemorphic dualism") is among the view's most skilled contemporary defenders. His 2005 article "Hylemorphic dualism" is must reading for those interested in the subject, and he has recently published another important article entitled "Concepts, dualism, and the human intellect," which is available here. Check it out.

Incidentally, anyone who wants to see what a rigorous and detailed contemporary defense of Aristotelian-Thomistic metaphysics would look like should invest in Oderberg's brilliant recent book Real Essentialism.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

An open letter to Heather MacDonald

Over at Secular Right, Heather MacDonald has added a reply of her own to John Derbyshire’s reply to my previous reply to her. Dizzy yet?

Anyway, here’s a response that I hope will bring this exchange, if not to a close, then at least into greater focus:

Hello again Ms. MacDonald,

If you’ll forgive me for saying so, it seems to me that you keep missing my point. On top of that, you are now trying to change the subject. If you will indulge me for a few minutes – and it seems that a more in-depth reply is, after all, what you are requesting of me – let me try to explain how.

The source of my dispute with you is the criticism that you (like Kathleen Parker and others) have been making of religion – not of this or that kind of religion, and not of this or that individual religious believer, but of religion per se – to the effect that it is irrational, and that this irrationality has something to do with its purported lack of scientific grounding.

I have said several times now that part of the problem with your position is that you assume – falsely, and certainly without any argument whatsoever – that the methods applied by the empirical sciences are the only rational methods of inquiry that there are. Yet you have failed to answer this criticism, or even, as I far as I can tell, to acknowledge it. Worse, you seem completely unaware that the assumption you are making is in fact a highly controversial one, and not just among religiously-minded thinkers. A great many secular thinkers would reject it. I gave the example of mathematics, the rationality of which no one denies, but which very few philosophers, mathematicians, or philosophically-inclined empirical scientists – including atheistic philosophers, mathematicians, and empirical scientists – would take to be an empirical form of inquiry.

Now I have claimed – as a great many other thinkers, both secular and religious, would claim – that philosophy, and in particular the branch of philosophy called metaphysics, is another form of inquiry which is both rational and at least in part non-empirical. It can be thought of as being similar to both empirical science and mathematics in some respects, and different from both in other respects. Like empirical science, metaphysics often begins with things we know via observation. But like mathematics, it arrives at conclusions which, if the reasoning leading to them is correct, are necessary truths rather than contingent ones, truths that could not have been otherwise. That doesn’t mean that the metaphysician is infallible, any more than the mathematician is. It means instead that if he has done his job well, he will (like the mathematician) have discovered truths about the world that are even deeper and more indubitable than the most solid findings of empirical science.

Indeed, many metaphysical issues are concerned precisely with matters that empirical science necessarily takes for granted. To take just one example, empirical science is concerned with investigating the relationships holding between observable phenomena, especially their causal relationships. But what exactly is causation in the first place? Is there more than one kind? Is it a real feature of objective reality, or only a projection of the mind? And what exactly are the things that are supposed to be related causally – objects, events, properties? All of the above? And what exactly is it to be “observable”? How can we be sure that our powers of observation adequately reveal to us the nature of the things we take ourselves to be observing? Note that these are all philosophical or metaphysical questions, not empirical scientific ones. And since they deal with what empirical science takes for granted, they are questions that empirical science cannot answer.

This is one reason why the view that empirical science is the only rational form of inquiry that there is – a view sometimes known as “scientism” – has been thought by many philosophers (and scientists too) to be incoherent and thus necessarily false. Indeed, the claim that empirical science is the only rational form of inquiry there is is itself not an empirical claim at all, but a metaphysical one, and thus it undermines itself.

Now, what does all of this have to do with the rational credentials of religion? Everything. For the traditional arguments for the existence of God – the sort given, for example, by Thomas Aquinas – are not intended to be exercises in empirical hypothesis-formation of the sort common in physics, chemistry, etc. But that does not mean that they are not rational arguments. Rather it means that they are rational arguments of a different sort, a philosophical or metaphysical sort. Indeed, they begin with facts about the empirical world that empirical science takes for granted – such as the fact that the empirical world exists at all, or that it undergoes change, or that it exhibits patterns of cause and effect – and they attempt to demonstrate that the only explanation of these facts that is possible even in principle is the existence of a divine First Cause.

Now, many readers, when they hear this claim, automatically think “Oh, I’ve heard all that before, but everyone knows that those arguments are easily refuted.” But in fact “everyone” knows no such thing. In fact, most people have no idea at all what the arguments as traditionally understood were really saying. What they do know are only the crudest clichés and caricatures of the arguments, as peddled in countless books of pop philosophy, pop atheism, and (yes) pop apologetics.

For example, it is very widely assumed that cosmological arguments of the sort give by Aquinas rest on the assumption that “everything has a cause.” But in fact, none of the major defenders of the cosmological argument – not Aristotle, not Maimonides, not Aquinas, not Duns Scotus, not Leibniz, not Clarke, not any other major thinker – assumes this at all. It is widely assumed that defenders of the cosmological argument are all trying to show that the world had a beginning, and that God must have been the cause of that beginning. In fact (almost) none of them are trying to show this, and most are happy to grant, at least for the sake of argument, that the world has always existed. It is very widely assumed that defenders of the cosmological argument say nothing to show that a first uncaused cause of the world would have to be all-powerful, all-knowing, all-good, and in general to have the various attributes definitive of the God of traditional theism. In fact all of them say a great deal to demonstrate this, and many of them devote dozens or even hundreds of pages of rigorous argumentation to show that a First Cause could not possibly fail to be anything less than a single all-powerful, all-knowing, all-good, eternal and immaterial being. It is very widely assumed that the arguments are “God of the gaps”-style attempts at empirical theorizing, when, as I have said, they are not that at all. They do not stand or fall with any particular empirical observation, but are rather metaphysical demonstrations seeking to establish the essential preconditions of there being any empirical world to study in the first place. It is widely believed that the claim that the First Cause is itself uncaused is an arbitrary and entirely undefended assumption. In fact this is not “assumed” at all. The argument for a First Cause rests on a sophisticated theory of causation from which it is conclusively demonstrated, and not “assumed,” that no causal series could exist at all even for an instant unless there were an uncaused cause sustaining the world, and every causal series within it, in being at every instant. And so forth.

Hence when I denied that religion was “unscientific,” I did not mean that there were double-blind experiments or the like which could validate claims about magic pills, etc. I meant instead that there are serious rational arguments of a specifically metaphysical nature which show that the existence of God is a necessary condition of the intelligibility of science itself. You might disagree with this claim, but surely you can see that it is a serious claim which has to be met with a serious reply, a reply informed by knowledge of the relevant disciplines: philosophy, especially metaphysics and philosophy of religion; philosophy of science; theology; and, I would add, the history of ideas. It will not do simply to mock a few hapless unsophisticated religious believers, toss in a simplistic version of the atheistic argument from evil, and then pretend that one has more or less demonstrated that religion per se is an irrational enterprise. And as someone who has long admired your work on public policy, I know that you are capable of better than this.

It also will not do to try now to shift the ground of debate to the question of what sort of attitudes sophisticated believers have or should have toward less sophisticated ones. The claim that people like you and Kathleen Parker have been making is that religious belief per se, and not just the views of this or that religious believer, is irrational. I have been arguing that you have made no serious or well-informed case whatsoever for such a claim. Perhaps because you see that I am right, you now want to change the subject and discuss instead the topic of whether I ought to approve of the magic pill priest. Well, apart from the fact that, other than what you have told us, I have no knowledge whatsoever of this fellow, and no interest in finding out more, I have also already spent a good part of a week – and now all of a Saturday night I could have been spending on the couch with Ben and Jerry and the remote control – to pursuing the debate we started out having. I’ve no time for a second one, thank you very much.

Suffice it to say that if you think a sophisticated believer must either endorse every single oversimplification and/or superstition adhered to by his less sophisticated fellow believers, or attack every single one of them with the sort of outrage and contempt that you do, then you have just committed what logicians call the fallacy of false alternative. Some simplifications are just that – simplifications – and are harmless, or even useful as a way to convey difficult ideas to the less sophisticated. (Scientists do this all the time – think e.g. of the little stick-and-ball model used to convey the idea of a molecule.) Others are oversimplifications or even superstitions, and should be rejected, even harshly in some cases. We have to go case by case. Why you insist on taking extreme cases like Fr. Magic Pill and extrapolating from him to religion as a whole, or even to unsophisticated religion as a whole, I have no idea.

Anyway, perhaps you can see why I have insisted that there is little point in getting into these matters in a blog post – and, given my verbosity here, you no doubt wish at this point that I hadn’t said even this much. But the issues are complex, and the reams and reams of disinformation that a serious defender of religious belief has to overcome are many. It all has to be addressed at length or not at all. That’s why I wrote The Last Superstition.

As a conservative, you are already familiar with this sort of phenomenon. You know all too painfully well that what “most people,” even most educated people, claim to “know” about (say) conservative approaches to poverty, or health care, or free-market economics in general, is a pile of worthless caricatures and clichés. You know how common it is for them to take the worst representatives of conservatism, or even people who are not truly conservative at all but represent only a distortion of conservatism, and present them as if they were paradigmatic of conservatism per se. And you also know how very difficult it is, accordingly, to get through the deeply entrenched prejudices of such people, which keep them even from understanding what a real conservative argument is, much less giving it a fair hearing.

It seems to me that, with respect to religion, you have fallen into the same trap these critics of conservatism have. And like them, it seems to me you are unwilling even to consider the possibility that you might be mistaken. (And please don’t bother trying to fling the same accusation back at me. I once had views very much like your own, having being an atheist, and a “secular conservative,” for many years before rational arguments persuaded me of the truth of theism and related doctrines. I have considered the very best arguments for both sides, and in great detail.)

Like the dogmatic socialist or welfare statist who insists that he needn’t bother reading a Hayek or a Friedman because he “already knows” what they are going to say, “already knows” that their conclusions must be wrong, and “refutes” them without reading them by spouting clichés the hollowness of which these writers would easily expose, if only they were given a fair hearing – like them, you, it seems to me, insist on repeating the same points over and over without realizing that what is in question are precisely the assumptions underlying those points.

If you have no desire to read my own book, fine – I could certainly understand why not, given the testiness of our exchange, on my side as well as yours. But please, please do your homework before making claims of the sort you have been making. And stop pretending that in the dispute between secularists and religious believers, only the former can plausibly claim to have reason and science on their side. It is not true, and it neither rational, nor scientific, nor conservative to pretend that it is true.

Ed Feser

Thursday, December 4, 2008

A Rodney King moment

Over at Secular Right, the esteemed John Derbyshire (a.k.a. Bradlaugh) and I continue the exchange sparked by my comments on Heather MacDonald. Starts out nasty on both sides, but soon degenerates into all-around amity and reasonableness. The moderator may soon have to throw in the towel before each of us violently insists on declaring the other one the victor.

Anyway, interested readers can start with Bradlaugh's initial post and then scroll through the comments section...

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

The burden of bad ideas

So, Heather MacDonald has replied to my reply to her. Take a look and then come back.

Welcome back.

Now, a little thought experiment. Suppose you were a professional physicist. Suppose further that that you came across the writings of someone whose knowledge of quantum mechanics derived entirely from discussions with high school science students. She had picked up from them some of the jargon – “collapse of the wave function,” “Schrödinger’s cat,” “wave-particle duality,” and so forth – but because their explanations were amateurish at best – always oversimplified, usually at least partially mistaken, and sometimes even grotesquely off-base – they failed to convey to her anything close to an accurate picture of the subject. Bizarrely, though, she used the bad information she’d picked up from them as the basis for an attack on the intellectual respectability of quantum mechanics, presenting it as clear evidence of the irrationality of contemporary physicists. “These physics oddballs claim they have a cat in a lab somewhere that is both alive and dead at the same time! And they also believe in little magic particles floating on foamy cosmic waves, or some such thing. Oogedy-boogedy, as my friend Kathleen would say. Maybe we conservatives ought to stay away from them. Maybe start a blog too. ‘Cause otherwise, you know, we might look as foolish and clueless as they do!”

Suppose also that, equally bizarrely, she seemed to be getting some respectful attention for these laughably ill-informed opinions. Annoyed, you pointed out to her that she doesn’t know what she’s talking about, that she really ought to read some serious physics books before commenting further, and that in any case she ought to leave the hapless high school students out of it. Irate, she replies that the burden of proof is on you to demonstrate that quantum mechanics is really worth taking seriously, and that doing so requires you to give her some “scientific evidence” that what the high school students have to say is true. She also refuses to consider the views of any actual physicists, apparently on the theory that if their complex arguments cannot be summarized for her in the comments box of one of her blog posts, then they must not be very compelling. Then she riffs a little more on some of her pet irrelevancies. “Where, pray tell, is your scientific evidence for this cat who’s alive and dead at the same time, Mr. Physicist? Show it to us, if it’s real! And what about those little ball thingies that float on the waves? Where’s your scientific test for them? Huh? HUH?!” Finally, with a flourish, she compares quantum mechanics to belief in the efficacy of Kinoki Detox Foot Pads. “So there!”

Replace “quantum mechanics” with “religion,” “physics” with “philosophy and theology,” and “high school students” with “unsophisticated religious believers,” and this is, I submit, pretty much where I find myself with respect to MacDonald. Really, what’s the point?

But I guess I’m in a masochistic mood, so let’s waste a few more pixels, shall we?

MacDonald insinuates that in my original short email to Jonah Goldberg which he posted at The Corner, and in my brief reply to her in the comments section of her blog, I was “argu[ing] for the scientific and rational basis of religion,” and she does not find these purported arguments of mine compelling. But of course, it would be idiotic to try to argue for such a gigantic claim in either a short email to a busy NRO writer or in the comments box of some blog, and so I did not try to do so. The only point I was making is that whatever one thinks of religion, MacDonald, Kathleen Parker, et al. reveal by their writings that they are innocent of any knowledge of serious religious thought – and MacDonald keeps piling up the evidence for this claim with every comment she makes in reply to me.

Presumably MacDonald wrote her own book The Burden of Bad Ideas precisely so that she wouldn’t have to repeat herself at length every time some joker demanded of her to prove, on the spot (and indeed even in emails sent to third parties) that her views on public policy are correct. “Jeez, read the book, fella!” I imagine she would say, and rightly so. (And you should read it too, incidentally, because MacDonald, whose work I generally enjoy and profit from, is very good when she’s writing on subjects other than religion.) Similarly, if MacDonald really wants to hear my case for the rational basis of religion, she can find it in The Last Superstition. (Twenty-one shopping days left until Christmas, so pick one up for Kathleen too!)

I will say this much, however. MacDonald seems to think that a rational case for the existence of God must take the form of coming up with a double-blind experiment to test claims about magic pills, or whatever the hell it is she was going on about. But the traditional arguments for God’s existence are not like that. That is to say, they aren’t quasi-scientific or pseudo-scientific explanations of this or that alleged weird phenomenon. They are instead attempts to show that perfectly ordinary phenomena, and in particular the phenomena that empirical science itself must necessarily take for granted, such as (to take just one example) the existence of any causal regularities at all, necessarily presuppose an uncaused first cause. The reasons why this is so are complicated, as are the reasons why the standard “obvious” objections to this claim are no good – that is, again, why they cannot properly be explained except at the sort of length a book provides. The point for now, in any event, is that empirical theorizing is not the only sort of rational inquiry there is. Mathematics is another. And a third is metaphysics, which is the rational investigation of those categories – such as cause, effect, form, matter, substance, attribute, essence, existence, and so forth – which empirical science cannot investigate, precisely because any empirical science must presuppose them. (Even the claim that “empirical science is the only rational form of inquiry” would itself not an empirical claim but a metaphysical one.) And this is the level at which the debate over God’s existence must be conducted – philosophy, not empirical science.

Again, though, read the book, which establishes all this at length and in detail.

That MacDonald is no philosophy whiz is in any case painfully evident from her attempted disproof of God’s existence on the basis of evil. I positively defy her to name anyone – it need not be a philosopher, just anyone at all – who has said anything to the effect that “their death [i.e. that of the miners in her example] shows God’s love for humanity, that he cares for every one of us.” True, lots of people say (quite correctly) that such tragic events are consistent with God’s love for us. But who ever made the much stronger claim that they are nothing less than “proof” of that love? No one, as far as I can tell. And yet this silly straw man attribution is essential to MacDonald’s hapless attempt at reductio ad absurdum.

Yet again, read the book, which contains a thorough debunking of the problem of evil.

Anyway, MacDonald need not count her ill-advised foray into philosophy and theology a total loss. Look at it this way: Should she ever be moved to revise The Burden of Bad Ideas she’s now got material for a new chapter, viz. an autobiographical one.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Secular conservatism

Today Jonah Goldberg took Kathleen Parker and others to task here for some of the silly and ill-informed things they have been saying in defense of “secular conservatism.” Goldberg then posted some remarks of mine on this debate here, and a none-too-amused Heather MacDonald replied to me in turn here. Scroll through the comments on MacDonald’s post for my reply to her reply.