Sunday, September 6, 2009

Manzi on the Wright-Coyne dispute

I argued in The Last Superstition that whatever one thinks of Darwinism, its truth or falsity is (contrary to what New Atheists like Richard Dawkins suppose) irrelevant to the cogency of the Thomistic proofs of God’s existence, including Aquinas’s Fifth Way (which Dawkins incompetently assimilates to Paley’s Design argument). Indeed, if Darwinism has any relevance to the latter argument at all, it is in fact by slightly reinforcing rather than undermining it. The reason is that Darwinism, like any scientific theory, posits various causal mechanisms, all causal mechanisms presuppose (for reasons set out in TLS) final causality, and thus (since the take-off point of the Fifth Way is the existence of final causality) Darwinism, qua scientific theory, only lends further support to the Fifth Way.

I also argued in TLS that the application by biologists, physicists, and other scientists of concepts like “algorithm,” “information,” “software,” “program,” etc. to the natural world evinces a tacit recognition of the reality of teleology or final causation. The reason (set out, again, in detail in TLS) is that the sort of directedness-towards-an-end that these concepts entail just is the core of the Aristotelian-Scholastic conception of final causality.

A third point emphasized throughout TLS is that the Thomistic proofs, like most of the classical arguments for God’s existence, do not stand or fall with the question of whether the universe had a beginning in time. Even if (as the pagan Aristotle held and as the Christian Thomas Aquinas was happy to concede for the sake of argument) the universe had no beginning, the need for a first Uncaused Cause would remain. For “first” in the thinking of Aristotle and Aquinas does not mean “first in time” but rather “ontologically most fundamental,” and what they are interested in explaining is not how the universe came about at some point in the past but rather what keeps in going at any given moment. (Creation for Aquinas fundamentally just is the divine conservation of the world in being.)

In an interesting commentary over at The Daily Dish on the dispute between biologist Jerry Coyne and Robert Wright (author of The Evolution of God), Jim Manzi makes some observations which dovetail with these points.

This is admittedly least obvious with respect to the last point. Manzi notes that, contrary to what Coyne seems to suppose:

evolution does not eliminate the problem of ultimate origins. Physical genomes are composed of parts, which in turn are assembled from other subsidiary components according to physical laws. We could, in theory, push this construction process back through components and sub-components all the way to the smallest sub-atomic particles currently known, but we would still have to address the problem of original creation. Even if we argue that … prior physical processes created matter, we are still left with the more profound question of the origin of the rules of the physical process themselves.

And Manzi concludes that:

If you push the chain of causality back far enough, you either find yourself more or less right back where Aristotle was more than 2,000 years ago in stating his view that any conception of any chain of cause-and-effect must ultimately begin with an Uncaused Cause, or just accept the problem of infinite regress.

Now, Manzi’s point is susceptible of two alternative interpretations. He might mean that if you trace the origins of complex material structures back in time to ever earlier stages in the history of the universe (or of some hypothetical series of branching universes, perhaps) then you will eventually either have to reach some temporal beginning point and un Uncaused Cause of that beginning point, or accept a mysterious infinite regress.

If that is what Manzi means, then he is not giving an Aristotelian defense of theism. Again, Aristotle and his followers do not argue for a temporal beginning of the universe (even though some of them do happen to believe, on independent grounds, that it had such a beginning). Nor do they think that an infinite regress is a “problem.” For by “infinite regress,” one either means an infinite regress of accidentally ordered causes extending backward in time – in which case such a regress is perfectly possible (and, indeed, actual, in Aristotle’s own view) – or one means an infinite regress of essentially ordered causes of the sort that trace ultimately to simultaneously operating instrumental causes here and now – in which case such a regress is, not merely “problematic” or mysterious (as if such a regress could exist in some as-yet unknown fashion), but flatly impossible in principle. (Again, all of this is explained at length in TLS.)

But Manzi’s remarks can be interpreted in another, more Aristotelian way. He might mean that even if the universe had no beginning in time, the basic laws that govern it, and the fact of their continual operation at any given moment, would still require an explanation. Talk of “laws of nature” is more a modern than an Aristotelian way of speaking, but the basic point remains that there is nothing inherent in material reality that can account for the “actualizing” of its “potential” for existing and operating in just the way it does at any particular instant. Unless we trace it down to that which is “pure actuality,” an Unmoved Mover or Uncaused Cause sustaining it in being and operation here and now and at any moment we are even considering the question, we would have no way in principle to account for why the universe exists at all and operates in precisely the way it does. The “problem of infinite regress” on this interpretation is not a matter of accepting a mystery which might have a solution – just one we do not and perhaps cannot discover – but rather the fatal (to naturalism) problem that without acknowledging that the regress of essentially ordered causes operating here and now terminates in an Unmoved Mover, the material world becomes unintelligible even in principle. (You know the drill: See TLS for the details.)

Manzi is clearer on the issue of final causality. Coyne seems to think that to attribute purposiveness to evolution entails seeing the human species, specifically, as having somehow been the end result toward which natural selection was working; and he trots out the usual ad hominem response to critics of Darwinism to the effect that they just can’t handle evolution’s humbling implications, blah blah blah. But as Manzi notes, this completely misses the point. Let the human race be as cosmically insignificant as you like; neither our existence nor that of any other particular species is at all relevant to the question of evolution’s “purposiveness.” The point is rather that Darwinism claims to identify an “algorithm” by means of which natural processes generate new species. And if this “algorithm” talk is taken seriously, then (to put things more strongly than Manzi does) it necessarily entails, given the nature of algorithms, that there is an end-state towards which the processes in question point – not, to be sure, the generation of some particular species (human or otherwise) at some temporal culmination point, but rather the (in principle non-stop) generation of species after species meeting certain abstract criteria of fitness. (It is an error to think that the existence of final causes in biology would entail some sort of “omega point” a la Teilhard de Chardin. Aristotle, after all, believed that the motion of the heavenly spheres was both teleological – since the spheres were in his view moved by their “desire” to emulate the Unmoved Mover – and also endless. His physics and astronomy were mistaken, but that does not affect the philosophical point about the nature of teleology. Even if evolution proceeds forever, that would not make it non-teleological.)

As I argue in TLS, all the computer science talk physicists, biologists, and other contemporary scientists have taken on board with such gusto really isn’t compatible with the “mechanistic” or anti-teleological conception of the material world to which they are still officially committed. Hence one either has to agree with the judgment of thinkers like John Searle that talk of “information,” “algorithms,” etc. is at best a misleading set of metaphors and at worst a complete muddle; or, if one thinks such talk is indispensible (and there is good reason to think it is) one must acknowledge that something like the Aristotelian conception of nature is correct after all.

James Ross has made similar arguments in a series of writings, such as his essay “The Fate of the Analysts: Aristotle’s Revenge: Software Everywhere,” and, most recently, in his book Thought and World: The Hidden Necessities. And, of course, I have noted the many neo-Aristotelian themes to be found in the work of many contemporary philosophers and scientists – including many who have no theological ax to grind – both in TLS and in earlier posts like this one and this one. Far from completing the anti-teleological mechanistic revolution – which was, strictly speaking, a philosophical revolution rather than a scientific one (albeit a philosophical revolution modern scientists have tended to swallow hook, line, and sinker) – the advent of the algorithm actually completely undermines it.

One reason so many commentators on the so-called “religion vs. science” debate don’t see the Aristotelian implications of the modern scientific ideas to which they appeal is that they simply don’t understand what Aristotelians mean by “final causality” in the first place, and in general -- as I never tire of complaining -- are beholden to a fossilized set of “Enlightenment”-era clichés and caricatures of what Aristotelians and Scholastics really thought. Not understanding classical philosophy (whether Aristotelian, Platonist, Thomist, or whatever) they naturally also do not understand the theology it inspired. Hence they take William Paley and his successors – rather than an Augustine, an Aquinas, or even a Leibniz – as their guides to what the divine nature must be like, if there is a God. Hence, rather than directing their arguments against the (classical philosophy-informed) classical theism that has historically defined Christian orthodoxy, they target a (currently popular but historically aberrant) anthropomorphic conception of God. Perhaps Coyne, Dawkins, et al. draw some blood when this conception is their target; and then again, perhaps not. Either way, their arguments are utterly irrelevant to the question of the existence of the God of Athanasius, Augustine, Anselm, and Aquinas – and thus of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

But that theme calls for a separate post…


  1. "Nor do they think that an infinite regress is a “problem.” For by “infinite regress,” one either means an infinite regress of accidentally ordered causes extending backward in time – in which case such a regress is perfectly possible (and, indeed, actual, in Aristotle’s own view)..."

    Hello Ed

    What do you think about the sorts of arguments against the possibility of an actually infinite series of past events that have been posited by Moreland and Craig? (I'm sure you're familiar with their arguments, but I'll summarize the points that seem strongest to me). Moreland argues that if there had been an actually infinite series of past events, then, to reach the present moment, one would have to suppose that an infinite series of events had been traversed, which is impossible. And Craig argues that actual infinites are impossible because they give rise to sundry contradictions (the sorts of which he usually illustrates with 'Hilbert's Hotel,' e.g. if an infinite number of rooms in the hotel are occupied by an infinite number of guests, and an infinite number of new guests arrives, each guest from room one on can be moved into an even numbered room, so that now all the odd numbered rooms are vacant and can accommodate the infinite number of new guests -- even though all the rooms in the hotel were initially occupied). From what you wrote above, it seems you think these arguments don't quite work, since you accept the possibility of an actually infinite past. Where would you say they go wrong?

  2. Thanks for the incredibly interesting commentary.

    I am aware of Aristotle's view that (in my layman's terms) the universe is eternal, but nonetheless the frist action was the Unmoved Mover, and agree that this was fuzzed up in the post. I tired hard to just say "look, here's an opn philosophical question that pre-dated darwin's birth, and is not solved - or even meaningfully addressed - by evolution through natural selection.

    I am working on a book right now about the uses of experiments in social sicence that, bizarrely enough, begins with a review of what it means to "know something scientifically". This review begins with Bacon's revolt against the Scholastics. My view is that Bacon's (brilliant and consequential) insight was that if (those who would come to be called)scientists simply ignored ultimate questions like final cause, in addition to some other methodological advances, they could make a lot more practical progress.

    The problme that I see with the Coynes of the world is that they have forgotten these limitiations to their method, and believe that they are seeing the world as it is in full,rather than developing useful, reliable and non-bvious predictive rules. The point of my post was simple: that these limits to scientific knowledge exist as a function of its method, and therefore that Coyne's assertions that scinetific finding X produce finding Y about final cause are empty. I very specifically tried to avoid making any philosophical claims about the topics that Coyne was adressing, and limited myself to claiming that Coyne's inference were unwarranted.

    Jim Manzi

    PS I', going to Amazon now to order your book.

  3. I have often said that "Darwin's Laws" are better evidence for God than "Behe's exceptions." Aquinas' comment about the boat that builds itself is pertinent.

  4. Hello Eric,

    I'm sympathetic to the kalam sort of cosmological argument Craig and Moreland defend; I'm not convinced that Aquinas was right to rule out the possibility of demonstrating that the universe had a beginning. But I do think the kalam approach is less fundamental than the Aristotle-Aquinas sort of argument.

    Hello Jim,

    Thanks for your reply. I agree completely with what you say here. The post-Baconian approach to science reflected a desire to find a method to achieve certain specific practical ends. Yet it has in the thinking of many people been transformed, unreflectively and unjustifiably, into a completely general metaphysics. It's like saying "This screwdriver works really well vis-a-vis these particular tasks; therefore there are no tasks it cannot carry out, or if there are, they aren't tasks worth carrying out in the first place."

    This is actually a major theme of my book. Hope you find it useful.

    Hello Mike,

    Yes, just so.

  5. Appreciate the blog posts, and your latest book The Last Superstition

    I agree with St. Thomas's Five ways but when you unpack the necessary nature of this God,I can't see how this God could exist. First how could God become Jesus of Nazareth if he does not change at all. How could God create a Universe if he does not change. It seems like there is some temporal change in those acts. This is precisely why I agree with William Lane Craig, Richard Swinburne and Anthony Kenny on this matter. Finally, what theory of omniscience do you take? Do you agree with St.Thomas on omniscience or Molina?


  6. Edward--Coyne and Manzi, in my view, are only giving a new spin on the old gobbledegook about evolution. Infinite regress is not the answer. This debate is always so easy for me because we have the book of Genesis to tell us that God created Man. Adam and Eve fell from Paradise. So we have the mess we have now with Original Sin. And Revelations is all the teleology, in that respect, I can handle. When philosophers get to the point of an unmoved Mover and uncaused Cause, then they're turning right--of course, it's God. I suppose I can follow the intricacies of those evolution arguments, but that is not what I believe.

  7. "But I do think the kalam approach is less fundamental than the Aristotle-Aquinas sort of argument."

    I agree (indeed, it was by reading The Last Superstition that I came to understand how powerful -- in a sense because they're fundamental -- Aquinas's cosmological arguments actually are). The kalam cosmological argument, however, does have at least one advantage over the Thomistic versions: it's much easier to understand (though, admittedly, the sundry issues it raises are enormously complex), and therefore much easier to present to skeptics in a conversation or a debate.

  8. How could God create a Universe if he does not change. It seems like there is some temporal change in those acts.

    Sure, but it's not God that changes. In fact, matter is the principle of change. Thus, when we understand that God is the Unchanged Changer, we understand that he is not material -- not "just another cause" competing with other efficient causes like Maxwellian electromagnetism, Einsteinian gravitation, or Darwinian evolution. These explain only how matter changes from one form to another; i.e., trans-form-ation. They do not explain creation.

    Leastwise, that's the way I understand the matter.

  9. "And having no potentiality to realize or actualize, such a being could not possibly move or change."
    (pg. 96 TLS)

    -----First, God does change. At one instance hes not the incarnated person Jesus of Nazareth and the next moment he is. That is change. One moment he answers my prayer and before that there was no prayer. That again is change.

    "In fact, he would have to be eternal or outside of time of time and space altogether, since to be within time and space entail changeability"
    (pg 98 TLS)

    -----Second if God brought the universe into being (Space, matter and time)there must of been a before. God sans creation must have a temporal existence. When we refer to any entity (I know there always material in our sense experience) they have to have a temporal duration. Some now, before, and after.

    ----- If god brought space into being,did he bring infinite space into being or finite space into being. If it is infinite how could it go from no space at all to infinite? If it is finite, what is outside the finite boundaries? Of course that is absurd. For example, think of being trapped inside a prison cell and the guard tells you, "you will never see the outside of these walls". Immediatley you think there is something outside of the walls that your 'missing out on'. You might ponder what is actually outside the walls. Beyond the walls there must be something (in space) and wherever your visual horizon is there must be something outside of that , and something outside of that, and something outside of that, and so on and so on. Thus, space must be infinite.

    Lastly, if minds are immaterial ontologically, they still have spatial extension. For example, when I walk to school everyday my mind 'moves with me'. At one spatio-temporal location its here and the next it is there.


  10. Hi, Christopher,

    First, God does change. At one instance hes not the incarnated person Jesus of Nazareth and the next moment he is. That is change. One moment he answers my prayer and before that there was no prayer. That again is change.

    The English word 'change' is a looser one than 'change' as a translation of the Latin or Greek in Aristotelian philosophy. For instance, in a sense you 'changed' when I started this comment to you, even though nothing about you actually changed -- because one instant you were not the person to whom I was writing a comment and the next instant you were. That's change. But it's what's sometimes known as a 'Cambridge change': what has really changed is how something other than you is related to you. You yourself haven't changed at all. When God answers your prayer, God changes only in the sense that creation, including yourself, is now related to God in a new way. This is not change in the relevant sense. For God to change in the relevant sense he would have to go from lacking something in Himself to gaining it. But God in Himself lacks nothing.

  11. Hmm...I don't recall Aquinas making the distinction between essentially and accidentally ordered causes as a way showing the impossibility of an infinite regress; that comes from Scotus, who was unmentioned in the post above.

    Bacon revolted? He taught in the medieval schools, which would seem to make him a scholastic himself. Everyone disagreed with each other in the university, so it's not quite right to say he rebelled against scholasticism, just because he was critical of his contemporaries.

    best, lee

  12. One of Feser's great sleight of hand tricks consists in bringing up scientists or empirically-minded philosophers, and then suggesting (but not really proving) that they "forgot Aristotle," or overlooked the Aristotelian causes, and instead upheld naive empiricism or something. That was hardly the case.

    Hobbes, for instance, provided arguments contra-essencia, and "subtance," Ari.'s causality, and all the scholastic dogma, including a priori or innate knowledge. Disagree if you will but suggesting that empiricism and then scientific "mechanists" just threw it out is misleading and simplified. The empiricists followed Galilleo, really--experimental science and induction had succeeded, for one.

    Even Kant usually stays closer to the empiricists than many realize (and see the First Antinomy on why First Cause arguments don't really prove anything (for one, infinity is NOT a contradiction, regardless of what Rev. WL Craig says)

  13. Hello Lee,

    Aquinas does make the distinction and draws just that lesson from it. See e.g. ST I.46.2, Reply Obj. 7.

    The point, anyway, was not historical or exegetical, but rather conceptual, viz. to distinguish the Thomistic (or, more broadly, Scholastic) family of theistic arguments from the sort most people these days think of when they hear "First Cause" or "cosmological argument."

  14. J,

    It would really be nice if, for once, you actually read my book before commenting. I have never said that the empiricists and other moderns gave no arguments. I've said that they gave bad ones (and, yes, that the arguments were secondary to the agenda in any event).

  15. That's sort of a veiled Ad Auctoritas; something like, ah but you have not read Plato and Aristotle in their entirety, so you really can't object to a priori knowledge, or Aristotle's causes! Au contraire. What did Russell say? Better a week with Newton than a year with Plato and the greeks, or words to that effect.

    Anyway, I have perused quite a few excerpts from your book--here, and elsewhere. For that matter, some of us read Aristotle's Metaphysics and Categories themselves--or at least the cliffsnotes--at one point (and Aristotle--or more likely Aristotle's school-- sounds rather empirical at times, even to the point of denying a priori truths, and possibly--a soul)

    That an acorn becomes an oak, even 99% of the time, does not prove purpose, or teleology, or a Designer. Continuity does not establish a necessary argument for God (and what about the thousands of extinct or poorly designed species). A Design inference (or Cause-orderer, Watchmaker, Deity, what have you) may not be logically impossible, but merely plausibility.

  16. Welcome to the world of J/Perezoso. All assertion, no argument. Eventually, yelling about the Founding Fathers and namecalling.

    Thanks for the post, Ed. Fantastic as usual. And Manzi's commentary was enlightening too.

  17. That would be you, Anny--another of the pseudo-thomists who thinks his little syllogistic will suffice as disproof of inductive knowledge and science itself. Even Aquinas's Five ways chestnuts are not necessary arguments (except for the ontological pipe-dream).

    Im all about argument--like pointing out, for one, that merely invoking Aristotle does not avoid the problems of what was known as epistemology. Or pointing out that a posteriori arguments are themselves not necessary (and the first cause is a posteriori.)

    Believe if you will, but never mistake your religious faith for some axiomatic knowledge (and Aristotle's hardly affirming the creed of JHVH & Jeezuss anyway, regardless of what Thomists insist upon)

  18. experimental science and induction had succeeded, for one.

    A screwdriver also succeeds admirably. That doesn't mean everything is a screw -- or that you should screw around with everything.

  19. Pointing out != Argument. Asserting != Argument. And Feser never claimed TLS proved the existence of any specifically Christian God. You really should read the book someday, Perezoso. And read deeper than "the cliffnotes" of others.

    And no one, certainly not Manzi or Feser, are arguing that science is wrong. Indeed, Feser passionately defends science (and the metaphysics that make it possible) in TLS. I know it breaks your heart that science has limits, or worse, that philosophy can enlighten us to important truths, but oh well. Them's the breaks.

  20. Well, much useful and beneficial knowledge (whether in engineering or medicine) came about when scientists and engineers broke with the old aristotelian assumptions--and really the pragmatic question does matter (ie a reasonable person calls a physician, not a priest when a family member's ill--that wasn't always the case).

    Im not thereby saying greek philosophers are useless, however: they provide some theologically-minded philosophers with some jargon skills!

    For that matter, even if one grants the metaphorical force of Aquinas five ways, they do not at all prove a judeo-xtian God--yes it seems reasonable to assume a First Break of the cosmic Pool table--but even Kant does not buy that it's a necessary argument. Infinite series are not contradictions.

    The Black plague and spanish influenza also must partake in that miraculous theological causality...

  21. The Five Ways don't prove the truth of Christianity? A shocker. Feser agrees. Aquinas agrees.

    Our world has pain and suffering? Again, amazing. Alert Feser. Alert Aquinas. Oh wait. They knew.

    Physicians are important? Goodness, someone should have told the council of nicaea. Maybe they would have agreed and ordered the construction of hospitals. Wait, they did.

  22. O wait! Then in effect Feser doesn't prove anything, except maybe like one of those great possible worlds. Though at the same time he does argue for Rational Theology ala catholic tradition, and says God is knowable (by like His order, evidenced in world wars, and plagues, tidal waves perhaps).

    He's the one suggesting he refutes all those bad Darwinists and mechanists--but now Anny says Herr Doktor Feser merely suggests they might be mistaken.

  23. Feser is "refuting those Darwinists"? Perezoso, I know you did not read Feser's book. But how could you not even read the OP?

    "Indeed, if Darwinism has any relevance to the latter argument at all, it is in fact by slightly reinforcing rather than undermining it."

    This sentiment is expressed in TLS. Indeed, one of Feser's most interesting claims is that quite a lot of modern scientific talk and explanation of nature (mind, biology, even physics, etc) is riddled with teleology in Aristotle's and Aquinas' sense - and that what more such language (and the unspoken commitment to a broadly Aristotilean metaphysics that comes with it) is indispensable for science. Feser's argument in TLS is for theism in the broad sense, and against materialism.

    You'd know all this if you read the book. Maybe you'll do that sometime, since it would keep you from butchering the plain reading of Feser's arguments. Then again, maybe understanding the arguments isn't your real concern after all.

  24. That's merely semantic. Say EO Wilson, or Dawkins or Orr claims something like horses or finches evolved, implying they progressed, even "got better", became more successful at advancing the gene pool, etc.. That sort of language use does not at all imply a theological argument, or purpose.

    And really, if there's no way to argue against Doc Feser then he's probably just invoking dogma, but in a clever way (like suggesting Aristotle's causes hold without bothering to justify why that is the case. For that matter, Aristotelian realism was never the only philosophical camp, nor was Aquinas. William of Ockham had some decent arguments contra-Ari. )

  25. Who said there's "no way to argue against Dr Feser"? I pointed out you don't even understand what he's saying, and that that much is evident in your off-the-wall attacks. In other words, arguing against Dr. Feser is possible. But to do that, you'll have to actually understand what he's saying to begin with. Reading the book would help, but so would reading the blog posts you comment in - and it's starting to look like you don't even do that.

    But hey. You say it's "merely semantic", apparently confuse "got better" with "teleology", and further indicate you won't even read OPs, much less books, before you criticize the ideas they espouse. I'll restrict my comments to critics who actually understand (or, really, indicate they care to understand) the arguments they're whining about.

  26. This comment has been removed by the author.

  27. No, you don't understand, puto. I know all about the problem of universals, punk. And the lies of Aquinas (as Luther called them--and empiricists, and Kant for that matter). We don't have to join in with Feser's crypto-vichy hype, even if we disagree with some of the Dawkinsites.

    And maybe I start quoting some chestnuts from Feser's fave vichy-Thomist, Garrigou-Lagrange, like where he blesses Petain, if not the nazis: the raison d'etre of Feser's return to Deus, I suspect.

  28. Hello J

    You frequently claim to understand Thomism quite well. I'd like to see if you can defend that claim. It's quite easily done: go here and answer Mr. Chastek's nine questions. It should be rather simple for someone as familiar with Aquinas as you are; after all, you repeatedly refer to Aquinas's arguments as 'chestnuts.' Now, you'd surely agree that in order to reach that conclusion about any argument, one must minimally understand the argument. Let's see how well you do in fact understand Aquinas. I'm sure we're all looking forward to reading your answers.

  29. J

    Please stop trying to 'disprove' Dr Feser or Fr. Garrou Lagrange by citing Fr Lagrange's support of the Vichy government, it (a) makes you look stupid and (b) is irelevent, its like saying that Christ's claim to divinty was discredited by his insistence that people pay the taxes due to ceaser

  30. J shows his naivete:
    by like His order, evidenced in world wars, and plagues, tidal waves perhaps.

    Well, they certainly don't just poof into existence. One can find for plagues and tidal waves a natural order of which they are the end (or telos). Thus, undersea earthquakes are ordered toward the generation of waves, some of which are great enough to express themselves as tsunamis. (The term "tidal wave" is a misnomer. The tides have nothing to do with them.) Likewise, certain pathogens are ordered toward the generation of plagues. Yersinia pestis, for example, is ordered toward the generation of bubonic plague and not toward measles, pinochle, or big blue bouncy balls.

    World wars are a different sort of thing, created by mankind and enabled by science and technology. But even there, we find that those engaged have purposes in mind, even if they miscalculate the means.

    Thus, there is order in the world, and that is the empirical starting point for the reasoning.

    + + +
    He's the one suggesting he refutes all those bad Darwinists and mechanists--but now Anny says Herr Doktor Feser merely suggests they might be mistaken.

    "Herr Doktor" Feser? Sind Sie deutsch?

    Where does Feser claim to refute Darwinism? It is true that some fanboys of Darwin have gone beyond the science into amateur metaphysics. But expertise in one narrow field does not confer expertise in others, even if you wear a white lab coat. (A century ago, Galton, Fisher, and others claimed that Darwinism meant that the State ought to engage in eugenics.) This is not science, however, but scientism.

  31. I was wondering what Dr. Feser thinks of Anthony Kenny's treatment of Thomistic philosophy and specifically some of his criticisms of the traditional attributes assigned to God found in his books (The God of the Philosophers, The Unknown God: Agnostic Essays). If Feser is right about God and the 5 ways, he should be writing more accessible refutations against Kenny, who is regarded as one of the preeminent authorities on St. Thomas.


  32. Brandon,

    I appreciate your explanation of Cambridge Change. As I thought about the matter, I agree that does explain how God could 'change'. I still would like to hear Feser on omniscience.


  33. And of course as the Believers get their defamation on (ad hominem, in Thomistjargon), they have yet to address any of the points I raised--say extinct/poorly designed/non-functional species. What's a Dodo bird for a Thomist? His wings are not well-adapted, except to flap uselessly. Ah but Mr DoDo could have been designed as a useful, and flightless snack for the foxes or eagles on his island.

    Cows too show admirable purpose: the Creator must want them to be the Final Cause as, like hamburger.

    Really, Design--and Aristotle's final cause--looks pretty much like ancient anthropomorphism, or metaphor, rather than based on solid empirical knowledge. It is inferential--and dependent on observation. Yes molars look like they were fitted to chewing. But that's after countless millenia of, as Pinker says, trial and error. What are Goose bumps for? There are countless examples of shoddy engineering. In effect, the Design-crowd, and the neo-thomistic quacks don't really even prove what they think they prove. They merely suggest something like Queequeg's shark gods (a great white shark a fine example of functional design, really).

  34. Hello Christopher,

    It seemed to me Brandon had already answered you, which is why I didn't reply. But I overlooked the question about omniscience. I don't have a settled view, but I tend toward the Thomistic position rather than the Molinist one.

    Re: Kenny, I have a fair bit to say about him in my forthcoming book on Aquinas (about which I'll be blogging soon). I respect him greatly as a philosopher, but (a) he's just dead wrong in claiming that the Five Ways depend on Aristotelian physics, and (b) his critique of Aquinas on being draws no blood at all.

  35. Hello Ed,

    I've heard that your book on Aquinas is going to be released on September 18. Is this correct?

  36. Im all about argument--like pointing out, for one, that merely invoking Aristotle does not avoid the problems of what was known as epistemology. Or pointing out that a posteriori arguments are themselves not necessary (and the first cause is a posteriori.)

    I think you're confused about what an argument is; "pointing out" something doesn't really cut it as an argument. And there are obviously a posteriori arguments that are necessary: for instance, because there is a book on my desk, and books have pages, there is something with pages on my desk. Each proposition here (there is a book on my desk, books have pages, there is something with pages on my desk) is a posteriori. The only plausible candidate for anything a priori in the argument is its structure; and if structure made an argument a priori, every valid argument would be a priori, which would pretty much make the distinction, as applied to arguments, useless. No one, as far as I am aware, disputes the claim that you can have necessary a posteriori arguments. (It's more controversial whether one can have necessary a posteriori propositions; but cosmological arguments, unlike some ontological arguments, aren't affected by this question.) In other words, you appear to be confusing the terms 'a posteriori' and 'necessary' as applied to arguments with 'a posteriori' and 'necessary' as applied to propositions (in fact, in both cases they are different uses). Natural confusion, perhaps; but one of the reasons why "pointing things out" does not substitute for actual argument.

  37. Hello Eric,

    It's already been released in the UK as of Sept. 1, but the official US release date is Oct. 1. I expect it will be available before then via Amazon, though, if history is any guide.

  38. I think you're confused on valid arguments, Brandon. They consist of Premises and conclusions which follow from the premises, which have to be true.

    Then Aquinas didn't quite get that either--. Saying that "God," necessary Being, a Primum mobile exists--interesting language, but hardly proven, ie confirmed. There really aren't any True premises to theological argumentation, though some churchies claim otherwise. I don't thereby say "atheism is true"--merely that a supposed monotheist Creator cannot be proven to exist.

    Except for the ontological argument (or pseudo-argument really--existence is not a predicate) the classical arguments are dependent on experience. Aquinas himself was an empiricist of a sort--though completely unaware of big bang (and I don't think he's even a Copernican)

  39. This was my biggest problem in following TLS: "There is nothing inherent in material reality that can account for the 'actualizing' of its 'potential' for existing and operating in just the way it does at any particular instant." I don't understand why an account is needed. An entity has an identity. It is what it is. Part of what it means to be that kind of thing is do to what that kind of thing does in those specific circumstances. That is why we can speak of causal necessity.

  40. What's a Dodo bird for a Thomist? His wings are not well-adapted, except to flap uselessly. Ah but Mr DoDo could have been designed as a useful, and flightless snack for the foxes or eagles on his island.

    The dodo is what it is (or was). One may as well ask if its alleged ineptness is an argument against evolution. How could "survival of the fittest" have led to the survival of such a supposedly unfit species.

    Essentially, the telos of a dodo was to be a dodo. No more, no less. After all, "design" means "intent," not "engineer-at-drafting-table."

    I think you have not quite grasped the idea of telos, and are arguing against a straw man.

  41. Survival of the fittest

    Flynn shows his naivete via the fundie's slogan for evolution. The Dodo went extinct (along with countless other species)--Darwinists do not suggest any anthropomorphic or mystery causation, nor do they make an inference that mere order in nature or continuity proves some religous force or final cause (even Bill of Ockham objected to that--as did Spinoza). T-Rex skeletons also show a marvelous order.

    The Dodo didn't survive for whatever reason (ie did not successfully adapt to its environment, though there were probably other reasons, like predators introduced by man). A Designer's a far more ludicrous explanation--if not sinister (the PlagueMaster!--maybe figure it out).

    For that matter, the Thomist and the Design advocate both suggest, via a supposed Final Cause, that a "God" himself is contingent--ever-changing, really. It's about the equivalent of Madame Fortuna. (and the 2nd law of thermodynamics another counter-argument contra-Design, both intrinsic and extrinsic. Gott designed the Sun to explode! Yay)

    re Brandon: Yes an argument could contain a posteriori propositions, but the argument form itself --even basic categorical syllogism is not a posteriori (excepting perhaps on some Quinean sort of view). And if the propositions are a posteriori, then they are not "necessarily" true; ie all possible worlds. I agree that we do suppose necessity, even to inductive/a posteriori knowledge, but in terms of philosophical tradition, a posteriori and/or synthetic knowledge is not necessary (and that was Hume's view as well as Kant--). First cause arguments do feature posteriori propositions (even, "every event must have a cause")

  42. J,

    Again you show yourself to be confused. Of course arguments have premises and conclusions; that's why merely 'pointing something out' is not an argument (and likewise why merely claiming that something isn't true isn't an argument).

    On necessary a posteriori truths, the 'philosophical tradition', as you call it, is not at all so clear: Hume's position on necessary a posteriori truths was a rejection of the common rationalist position (which allowed them); Kant was doing the same. And, of course, due to Kripke, analytic philosophers still debate the matter. There have been plenty of people who have argued that there can be a posteriori necessary truths. But in a sense this is all moot; as I said, nothing in Aquinas's arguments on this subject require that there be a posteriori necessary truths, only that some a posteriori truths follow necessarily from other a posteriori truths.

    Also, scholastic first cause arguments do not use the premise 'Every event has a cause'.

  43. Sorry, I intended to say "a common rationalist position"; mapping a priori and a posteriori. But the Malebrancheans, for instance, were committed to necessary a posteriori truths.

  44. Brandon again shows himself to be confused. Premises consisting of propositions relating to knowledge via experience--for example, those of natural science, economics, history--are a posteriori. Even Leibniz claims that is not necessary knowledge. Maybe do some googling. Now, one can use those a posteriori premises in a valid argument, but an argument is only as good as its premises (and cogency, even 99.99% probability, is not Truth, say a mathematical identity).

    The deception of Aquinas consists in passing off empirical claims--if not analogies--as necessary truths about "God," especially when astronomy was in its infancy.

    Your term logic ala Aristotle was sort of moot anyway, circa 1885 via Frege , and a few years later with Russell and propositional/predicate logic (if not with Leibniz, and then Hume, proto-positivist).

  45. Coyne anticipates Feser:

    "Faitheist philosophers are always telling us that we don’t grasp the subtleties of theological argument, but that won’t wash here: Manzi’s argument is identical to that made by Aquinas and refuted by Hume and his successors. It ain’t subtle. You can look up the details."

  46. If by "anticipates" you mean "dismisses in advance without giving the slightest evidence that he even knows what he's talking about," then, yeah, he anticipates...

  47. That Coyne is too inept to properly understand or rebut the philosophers he dislikes (Aquinas', Aristotle's, etc) is one thing. That he doesn't even understand the philosophers he likes (Hume in this case) is comedy writ large.

  48. J,

    I'm rather impressed; you managed to fit a rather large number of irrelevant and false things into a very small space. Everybody here knows what an a posteriori proposition is, so merely reciting a description everyone knows doesn't make you seem clever, just like repeating what I say, as you keep doing at the beginning of every comment doesn't make you seem intelligent. (But by all means keep doing it, if it makes you feel comfortable.) Hume and Kant were rejecting philosophical views actually in existence that allowed for some necessary a posteriori propositions; Kripke really did argue that there were necessary a posteriori propositions, touching off a debate on the subject that continues to this day; and, whatever may be the case with regard to this subject, Aquinas is not committed to any of the propositions in his arguments being necessary a posteriori, so your bringing the topic up is not only wrong but entirely irrelevant. As I have already said, and as you have provided no argument to the contrary on any of these three points, I suppose you are conceding them all. I haven't said a single thing about term logic, so your weird sudden move into an attack on term logic, which has nothing to do with the subject at hand, is merely a further sign of your confusion. It is also wrong, as is everything else in this comments thread that you've decided simply to make up; Leibniz's logic is demonstrably a term logic, as can be seen when we look at how different his formulation of "Leibniz's Law" is from post-Fregean formulations; Hume has no formal logic at all, instead preferring to rely on causal maxims, as anyone who actually takes the trouble to read Treatise 1.3.15 can tell; and term logic is currently a small but thriving subdiscipline of logic under people like Sommers, Englebretsen, and Murphree, and has been for decades now. You can search for them at Project Euclid, if you'd like.

    But why let little things like facts stop you from making things up? I eagerly wait for what you will make up next, to see how many irrelevant and false things you can pack into a single sentence that I can have the fun of "pointing out" what they are. It's always worthwhile to see just how irrational the opposition is willing to get; one learns what to expect.

  49. Im perfectly aware that Hume isn't doing prop. logic, Brandon--that's really obvious, sort of like your obvious dogmatic bias, and pseudo-classical pompousities.

    At the same time Hume does realize (unlike you) that matters of fact are not the same as axiomatic knowledge (ie math and logic). Aquinas does not offer axiomatic knowledge--even his physics is arcane and ancient. His proofs are inductive (really, more like sorties, not even inductive syllogisms). Kant also called the First cause arguments "physico-theological", and relying on experience (apart from the ontological pseudo-argument).

    Sound and valid arguments depend on true premises, not merely plausible or cogent. And theological argumentation contains no necessarily true premises. I don't thereby suggest all theological argumentation is meaningless (as did those Humeans, the positivists) but more along the lines of metaphorical, or analogy--not deductive.

  50. Survival of the fittest

    J sez:
    Flynn shows his naivete via the fundie's slogan for evolution. The Dodo went extinct... Darwinists do not suggest any anthropomorphic or mystery causation, nor do they make an inference that mere order in nature or continuity proves some religous force... T-Rex skeletons also show a marvelous order.

    The nature of natural selection is that the individuals which survive are those better fit for their niche in the environment. You suggested that the passing of the dodo represented some sort of failure of order; but there was nothing disorderly about the dodo. That it was fit for its niche was evidenced by the fact that it had survived. Human hunters changed the niche, is all. The dodo still went on being an excellent dodo; but the job requirements changed, hence the telos shifted.

    The telos of a species is shaped by its niche - its job description - and by "life's desire to live." Those better fit survive and reproduce more successfully than those less fit. Hence, "survival of the fittest," a phrase which preceded Darwin himself.

    The set of all equilibrium states form what physicists call an "attractor basin." Many physical systems work so as to minimize a potential function by moving into the attractor basin, and the telos for evolution of a particular species should be thought of in those terms. (Evolution in general has a more general telos.) Thus, falling stones come to rest at the point of minimum potential; planets come to rest in orbits. In the same way, predator-prey numbers form a system of differential equations that, when plotted on X-Y axes for predator and prey numbers, will actually form an elliptical "orbit" in parameter space.

  51. Dr. Feser,

    I responed to some of your post at and just wanted to point it out to you.


    Having read the Kalaam arguments about whether an actual infinity can exist, let me assure you they are the purest nonesense. That any actual infinity would have counter-intuitive properties that are predicted by our madel of infinity is not a reason to presume they can't exist.

  52. Hi Onebrow

    The arguments that I'm familiar with don't merely conclude that actual infinites lead to counter-intuitive results, but that they lead to contradictory results. A contradiction may be counter-intuitive, but not all merely counter-intuitive propositions are contradictory. Would you agree that positing the existence of actual infinites leads to contradictions? If not, why not? And if so, why do you think the arguments against the possibility of actual infinites fail? Normally, when an argument posits a premise that leads to a contradiction, we think we have good grounds for rejecting it. Why would it be different in this case?

  53. Why is there any need to know the origin of the rules of physical processes. The origin seems unimportant, especially compared to questions about their nature, truth, status and authority, as here-and-now operative principles.

    In fact, I'm wondering whether the origin question is, just like the infinite series issue, bypassed by the more fundamental question of the ontological status of those rules.

    The book is on its way, so if these questions are addressed there, just let me know and I'll read up on it before continuing.

  54. Dr. Feser,

    Just recently, I happily discovered your writings-I just completed the "Last Superstition". I think I have a much better grasp of the difference between AT and Intelligent Design. Would I be correct in saying that on the Thomistic view, natural law is actually "supernatural" law- and that's where the "guidedness" comes in?

    On a related note, are you familiar with the essay "On Earth As It Is In Heaven" written by the Perennialist Orthodox writer, James Cutsinger? If not, I would love to hear your reaction to it- particularly whether or not you think it is in agreement with classical theism.