Sunday, April 26, 2009

It’s just so obvious!

Suppose you were a late nineteenth/early twentieth-century British Idealist. In particular, suppose you were Bernard Bosanquet. You’d have had a tough row to hoe, no? I mean, trying to show that the world is mental through and through, that there is no such thing as a mind-independent reality, that naturalism is false – surely a very daunting task in any age, but especially so in the era of Maxwell, Lyell, Darwin, et al.!

Not really, as it happens. Why not? Thus spake Bosanquet:

“I didn’t say anything about Naturalism. I don’t think it important; the universe is so obviously experience, and it must all be of one tissue.” (Letter to C. J. Webb, Bernard Bosanquet and His Friends, p. 243, emphasis added)

See? Idealism is just so obviously true that no argument for it is needed, and naturalism is not even important enough to waste time trying to refute. That was easy!

Seriously, though, how could Bosanquet, or any philosopher, get away with such breathtaking dogmatism? Quite easily, for idealism really did seem quite obviously to be true to generations of post-Kantian and post-Hegelian philosophers, and not without good reason. Given certain subjectivist epistemological-cum-metaphysical assumptions having their origins in Descartes and the early empiricists, the idealistic consequences drawn from them by Kant, Hegel, and succeeding generations of German and British philosophers were, if not quite inevitable, at least extremely natural. Nor did the progress of natural science provide any reason whatsoever to think naturalism more likely to be true than idealism. For (then as now) naturalism is not an empirical or scientific thesis at all, but a purely philosophical one. And as philosophy, it simply could not stand up to scrutiny given what so many philosophers thought they knew about how we know the world (and “therefore”) what we know about it. If all we ever know or can know is experience, we cannot so much as form a concept of that which is other than experience. Idealism follows straightaway, or at least is hard to avoid. Naturalism, materialism, etc. can’t even get off the ground, or at least are extremely hard to justify in light of this widespread subjectivist starting point. Even irreligious or anti-religious philosophers of the time often acknowledged this (as I have noted elsewhere), and staked their position on some non-materialistic metaphysics or other.

But we’re well beyond such dogmatic Idealism now. Because we’ve replaced it with other kinds of dogmatism. Some of my readers recently alerted me to this Bosanquet-style dismissal of theism by my old sparring partner Will Wilkinson, a noted expert in philosophy of religion. (Or at least, a noted expert in whatever Bluffer’s Guide clichés about the subject Wilkinson picked up before dropping out of grad school.) And anyone who’s waded through the comboxes of philosophy blogs covering the APA petition controversy will find not a few professional philosophers lamenting that there is still anyone thinks the morality of homosexual acts is even worth debating. You see, it’s just “so obvious” that the classical theistic proofs are no good. It’s just “so obvious” that the essentialist-cum-teleological metaphysics undergirding classical natural law theory is indefensible today. It’s just “so obvious” that the attitudes toward sex taken for granted by your typical liberal academic or journalist are the mark of Enlightenment, rather than (to take, entirely at random, just one possible alternative explanation) extreme moral degeneracy. No need to waste time reading books claiming to show otherwise. It’s all just so obvious!

But could contemporary secularist and liberal philosophers really be as blinkered as Bosanquet? Surely not!

It couldn’t possibly be true that what they know of the traditional theistic proofs and of classical natural law theory is really nothing more than a bunch of stupid caricatures. It couldn’t possibly be true that they are simply dogmatically beholden to certain post-positivist and post-Quinean naturalistic philosophical assumptions they picked up unreflectively as grad students and have had reinforced by their utter unfamiliarity with any school of thought currently out of favor within a narrow academic philosophical culture. It couldn’t possibly be true that they don’t know what they’re talking about, and don’t know that they don’t know.

Why not?

Well, um… it’s, you know, just so obvious!

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

The interaction problem, Part II

In an earlier post, I suggested that one of the advantages of hylemorphic dualism over Cartesian dualism is that its notion of formal causation allows it to sidestep the interaction problem. For if the soul is the form of the body, rather than a distinct substance in its own right, then there is no question of two substances having to “interact” in the order of efficient causes on the model of two billiard balls. There is rather just the one substance, a human being, having (as every other material substance has) two constituents, its form (or soul) and its matter (or body). The “interaction” between them is no more problematic than the “interaction” between the form of a tree and the matter that makes up the tree. For soul and body do not “interact” in the first place the way two distinct things do; they together constitute a single thing. My intention to raise my hand is not one event which has somehow to get into causal contact with another, physical event. It is rather the formal-cum-final cause of a single event of which the activity in my nervous system and arm is the efficient-cum-material cause. The solution to the “interaction problem” is to break out of the conceptual Procrustean bed of the mechanical picture of the world and return to a philosophy of nature informed by Aristotle’s four causes.

(Actually, saying that this “sidesteps” the interaction problem is misleading and anachronistic, since it conveys the false impression that hylemorphic dualism was motivated in part by a desire to solve the interaction problem. In fact there was no interaction problem until early modern philosophers like Descartes abandoned hylemorphism and redefined matter, mind, and causation in an explicitly anti-Aristotelian way. As I show in The Last Superstition, the “mind-body problem,” like the “traditional” philosophical problems of induction, personal identity, causation, and many others, is largely a consequence of the early moderns’ mechanistic revolution.)

Some modern dualists have suggested that the interaction problem is oversold in the first place. And they are right to complain that materialists fling it around much too glibly. To be sure, the interaction problem really is a problem for Cartesian dualism, but it is not (by itself, anyway) a refutation of it. Let’s briefly consider why – before going on to see why it is nevertheless a serious enough problem that any dualist is well-advised to consider opting for hylemorphic dualism over the Cartesian variety (especially given that, as I would argue, there is already ample independent reason to adopt hylemorphism as a general metaphysics).

One reason why the interaction problem does not strictly refute Cartesian dualism is that the Cartesian dualist could always simply deny that mind-body interaction is real in the first place, and opt for occasionalism, or parallelism, or epiphenomenalism. Of course, the extreme oddity of these views leads many critics of Cartesian dualism to regard recourse to them as little better than an admission of defeat, a desperate appeal to a deus ex machina. As Bill Vallicella notes (without necessarily endorsing the judgment) both Malebranche’s occasionalism and Leibniz’s pre-established harmony have been accused of deploying a deus ex machina strategy, especially since both literally appeal to God to resolve the question of the mind-body relationship.

But though the charge is common, it is unfair. Malebranche and Leibniz both had independent philosophical reasons for believing in God, and both also had independent reasons for denying that there could be causal interaction between created substances (any substances, not just mind and body). And given their respective specific understandings of the nature of substances, Malebranche had good reason to think that God continuously mediates between them, and Leibniz to think that God does not do so but instead established a universal harmony between them at creation. Hence, Malebranche quite naturally concluded that (for example) when you decide to have a beer your body moves towards the fridge, not because the decision causes the bodily movement, but because God, on noting that you have made that decision, causes the body so to move. And given his different conception of substance, Leibniz quite naturally concluded instead that the decision and the bodily movement in question were each simply the natural unfolding of what was pre-programmed into each substance at their creation. These views of the mind-body relationship were not developed simply to deal with the interaction problem, but flowed naturally from two sophisticated and independently defensible metaphysical positions.

Defensible, but still bizarre, rarely actually defended, and subject to various objections of their own. And most modern dualists would agree with materialists that it would be preferable to avoid occasionalism and pre-established harmony if one can manage it. Hence the greater popularity of epiphenomenalism, according to which mental events do not cause physical events but are rather merely the ineffectual byproduct of the flux of physical events. When you decide to have a beer, the decision itself (or at least the conscious awareness of it) is not what causes your body to walk over to the fridge. Rather, entirely unconscious physical events caused your body to do so, and in the process also caused the conscious experience of making the decision in question, which event itself had no causal efficacy at all.

Though not much less bizarre than occasionalism and pre-established harmony, epiphenomenalism at least has this advantage over them as a way for Cartesian dualists to deal with the mind-body problem: Materialists too seem led into it, so that they can’t plausibly use it as a stick with which to beat dualists. For materialist theories of mind have a notorious problem explaining the efficacy of mental content. If (as materialists tend to hold) it is only the physical properties of mental states which give them their power to cause other physical states, then their mental or intentional content seems epiphenomenal. For example, if we suppose, as a materialist might, that my decision to have a beer is identical with or at least supervenes upon some event in my nervous system, then if it is only the physiological properties of that event that enter into the explanation of how it caused my bodily movements, the fact that it involved a representation of beer, specifically, or indeed had any representational content at all, drops out as causally irrelevant.

So, if materialists as well as Cartesian dualists are faced with the possibility of having to swallow epiphenomenalism, the former cannot accuse the latter of having a special difficulty in accounting for mind-body interaction. Still, this is more a rhetorical victory for Cartesian dualism rather than a substantive one. For epiphenomenalism is notoriously unsatisfactory, and not just because it is odd to say that your decision to have a beer is not what caused you to go to the fridge. If our mental states can have no causal influence whatsoever on our bodies, it would seem to follow that we cannot even talk about them. Indeed, the epiphenomenalist himself could not even talk about his thoughts about epiphenomenalism. For those thoughts would be as inefficacious as any other mental state or event. When he says “Epiphenomenalism is true,” the fact that he thinks it is true has absolutely nothing to do with his saying so. This is bizarre at best and incoherent at worst. And though epiphenomenalists have tried to find various ways around the problem, it would be better not to have to deal with it in the first place.

So, a Cartesian dualist is well-advised not to deny that mind and body interact. And this brings us to the second reason why a Cartesian dualist has a right to complain that his critics’ appeal to the interaction problem is often too glib. As Bill Vallicella has pointed out in several past posts, whether a Cartesian dualist can account for mind-body interaction depends on what view of causation one is assuming. And there is at least one view of causation – a regularity theory – on which no interaction problem arises at all for Cartesian dualism. As Bill has suggested:

Suppose we say that:

Event-token e1 causes event-token e2 if and only if (i) e1 temporally precedes e2, and (ii) e1 and e2 are tokens of event-types E1 and E2 respectively such that every tokening of E1 is followed by a tokening of E2.

On this Hume-inspired theory (sans the contiguity condition), causation is just regular succession. If this is the correct theory of causation, then there is nothing problematic about mental events causing physical events, and vice versa.

About this, Bill is absolutely right. If such a regularity analysis is correct – and there are philosophers who would defend such an analysis on grounds independent of their position on the mind-body problem – then the interaction problem is solved. At the very least Cartesian dualists can plausibly hold that objections to their position based on the interaction problem are less conclusive than their critics often let on.

But the “if” in question is a very big one. Is such a regularity theory of causation really plausible in the first place, or at least plausible enough to show that Cartesian dualism really can account for mind-body interaction after all? I think not. One reason why is that apart from its use of the word “cause,” the proposed analysis is perfectly compatible in substance with occasionalism, parallelism, and epiphenomenalism. For on each of those views, it is perfectly possible to say that a mental event of type M is always followed by a physical event of type P, in which case, on Bill’s suggested regularity theory, M will count as the cause of P. But an “interactionist” theory which differs in substance not at all from occasionalism, parallelism, or epiphenomenalism – all of which deny interaction – is an “interactionist” theory in name only.

Another problem with the proposed regularity analysis is that it simply doesn’t capture what we mean by “cause.” As Hume himself recognized, the connection we take to hold between a cause and its effect is not just a regular one, but also a necessary one. We don’t just think A was in fact followed by B, but that in some sense it had to be followed by B. Of course, Hume thinks there is no objective source for this idea of necessity, that it has to be traced to a purely subjective expectation on our part. For he holds that there is nothing in our ideas either of a cause or of its effect that necessarily links them together. Objectively speaking, causes and effects are “loose and separate,” and any effect or none could in theory follow upon any cause.

This Humean result is what makes “regularity” theories of causation seem at all plausible. But what they really give us is not causation, but rather only some replacement for causation. (The same holds true, I would say, for counterfactual analyses of causation.) So, no appeal to such a theory really solves the interaction problem at all. Rather, it simply adds one mystery to another, saying, in effect: “Causation in general is already mysterious, so why shouldn’t mind-body interaction be?”

The thing is, the reason causation in general is mysterious is the same reason mind-body interaction in particular is: the mechanistic revolution that displaced the Aristotelian-Scholastic model of explanation, throwing out formal and final causes and trying to make do with bastardized versions of material and efficient causes. As I have noted in earlier posts and discuss at length in TLS, one of the main arguments the Aristotelian tradition gives for formal and final causes is that without them efficient causation becomes unintelligible. Unless there is something in the nature (or “substantial form”) of a thing by virtue of which it “points to” or is “directed at” the generation of a certain effect (as its final cause) then there is no way to account for why exactly it produces that effect as opposed to some radically different effect, or none at all. Hume was merely drawing out the inevitable consequences of the mechanistic revolution. (And even here Hume is, as always, overrated, since the skepticism vis-à-vis causation implicit in the rejection of formal and final causes was already foreshadowed in Ockham and the late medieval nominalist tradition.) The way to solve both the interaction problem and the problem of causation is, accordingly, the same: a return to the Aristotelian metaphysics early modern philosophy displaced.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

TLS on radio

Some more upcoming radio interviews about The Last Superstition: I will be appearing on The Bob Dutko Show this Wednesday (the 22nd) at around 2:05-2:35 pm EST. Next week, on Thursday the 30th, I’ll be on The Jim Bohannon Show from 8-9pm PST.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Spinoza on final causes

Among the central themes of The Last Superstition is that final causality – teleology, purpose, or goal-directedness – is as objective a feature of the natural world as mass or electric charge, and that the arguments to the contrary given by various early modern philosophers are worthless. One thinker I did not discuss in TLS is Spinoza, who puts forward a critique of final causes in the Appendix to Book I of the Ethics. Spinoza’s metaphysics is notoriously idiosyncratic and has had few defenders, which is why I did not devote space to him in the book. His critique of final causality is closely tied to that metaphysics, and inherits its weaknesses. Still, Spinoza is one of the chief architects of modernity: the militantly secularist liberalism which has now displaced the milder and theologically-based Lockean brand of liberalism in the thinking of the contemporary Western intelligentsia has its roots in Spinoza’s Theological-Political Treatise. And his critique of final causality evinces some of the same fallacies and errors to be found in other early modern writers. So it’s worthwhile giving his critique a brief look.

Spinoza’s discussion has three parts: first, an account of the origins of belief in final causes; second, a set of arguments purporting to show that final causes do not exist; and third, a discussion of the implications of abandoning final causes for our judgments concerning good and evil, order and disorder, beauty and ugliness. Let’s consider them in order.

I. The genealogy of belief in final causes

Spinoza claims that belief in final causes springs from a projection onto the world of our own self-seeking desires. We are obsessively concerned with our own well-being – for example, with feeding, clothing, and sheltering ourselves. And this narcissism leads us to imagine that there are in nature something like the purposes we have, that water, animals, plants, and other natural objects exist for our sake, to provide us with the raw materials requisite to fulfilling our needs. Wondering how things could have come to be arranged so beneficially, we infer in turn that there must be supernatural powers lying behind the purposes we think we see in nature, whose interest is in making things go well for us.

Note how Spinoza foreshadows here what would become standard shtick among later secularist writers: debunking some hated idea by providing a “genealogical” account of it (Nietzsche, Marx, Freud), and dismissing metaphysical claims by attributing them to the “projection” of human interests (Feuerbach) or to anthropocentric bias (Darwinism).

Now even if such “just so” stories were plausible, any suggestion that they suffice to refute the targeted beliefs would commit the genetic fallacy. But Spinoza’s own “just so” story is not plausible in any case. Contrary to the standard caricature, the Aristotelian-cum-Scholastic attribution of final causes to natural objects and processes did not essentially involve identifying some respect in which they served human interests. Aquinas’s central argument for final causes is that without them we can make no sense of how efficient causes are possible. The basic idea is that if A regularly brings about B – rather than C, or D, or no effect at all – that can only be because there is something in the nature of A by virtue of which it is “directed at” or “points” to the generation of B specifically. This is an entirely general point about causation; it has nothing necessarily to do with human beings at all.

Another problem is that Aristotle – rather famously – believed in final causes without regarding them as deriving from any supernatural mind at all. He thought they were just there in nature, mostly completely divorced from any consciousness, and that was that. (He did, of course, believe in a divine Unmoved Mover, but his arguments here were based on efficient causality rather than final causality.) To be sure, the Scholastics would later disagree with Aristotle about this, and hold (as Aquinas did in the Fifth Way) that final causality must itself ultimately be explained in terms of the divine intellect. But the point is that there was from the beginning of philosophical reflection on final causes conceptual space left open for views very different from the one Spinoza seems to think is their inevitable concomitant.

Of course, Spinoza might reply that none of this constitutes anything more than an idiosyncratic departure from the “core” anthropocentric and theological sources of belief in final causes. But there are two problems with such a response. First, it seems to add to the genetic fallacy the fallacy of cherry-picking the evidence, arbitrarily putting aside possible sources of belief in final causes other than the ones Spinoza wants to recognize. Second, and related to this, it fails to address the actual arguments of writers like Aquinas and Aristotle, which, if they are sound, show that final causes exist whether or not Spinoza’s genealogical speculations are correct.

II. Arguments against final causes

Still, as I have said, Spinoza does offer arguments of his own against the existence of final causes. There are five of them. But we have already seen what is wrong with the first of them:

A. Spinoza’s account of the origin of belief in final causes shows they do not exist.

Spinoza’s first argument is that his genealogical account itself constitutes a disproof of the reality of final causes, but as we have seen, the account is dubious and any such argument would commit the genetic fallacy in any event. So let’s move on to his second argument:

B. The truth of Spinoza’s metaphysical system entails that there are no final causes.

The argument here is that Spinoza’s pantheistic metaphysics entails that everything that happens follows with necessity from Deus sive Natura via (a bastardized conception of) efficient causation, so that there is no work left for final causes to do.

One obvious problem with this argument is that it will have no force for anyone who rejects Spinoza’s metaphysics – which is pretty much everyone. Another problem, as Michael Della Rocca points out in his recent book on Spinoza, is that it is hard to see why God’s acting from necessity would exclude final causes or directedness towards an end: Why can’t we say that Spinoza’s God seeks to realize such-and-such an end, even if he does so of necessity?

C. The doctrine of final causes reverses the order of causation, making what is in reality an effect into a cause and vice versa.

The argument here is that a cause must precede its effect, whereas purported final causes come after their effects. For example, the oak is supposed to be the final cause of the acorn, even though the oak exists only after the acorn does.

One problem with this argument is that it simply begs the question. The defender of final causes will say that while causes must precede their effects in the order of efficient causation, the very idea of a final cause is that of a cause which, in a sense, follows its effect. Spinoza’s “argument” is really nothing more than a dogmatic insistence that all genuine causes are efficient causes.

Of course, someone might still complain that this feature of final causes makes them mysterious. But as Della Rocca points out, the efficacy of final causes can be made perfectly intelligible if we think of them as the intentions of an agent, in particular, of God. The oak can cause the acorn to be what it is precisely because it exists as an idea in the divine mind. This was indeed more or less Aquinas’s argument in the Fifth Way: that the vast system of final causes underlying the equally vast network of efficient causes constituting the natural world must ultimately be traced to the conserving action of the divine intellect, apart from whose constant ordering of things to their ends the entire causal structure of the world would instantly collapse.

This naturally brings us to Spinoza’s next argument:

D. The idea of final causes entails that God has ends, and thus detracts from his perfection.

There are several problems with this argument. First, as we have seen, not all defenders of final causality conceive of them as deriving from God: Aquinas does, but Aristotle does not. (Aristotle thinks of God as the final cause of the world, who moves it by virtue of being “desired” by it, but he does not think of God himself as having ends or putting them into nature. They’re just there.)

Second, even if final causes do depend on God, this objection would show, not that there are no final causes, but rather that a certain conception of God is mistaken.

Third, Spinoza is just wrong in any event to claim that explaining final causes in terms of God (as Aquinas would do even if Aristotle would not) necessarily detracts from God’s perfection. It would do so only if the point of realizing the ends in question were to remedy some deficiency in the divine nature. But the ends in question do not benefit God, who is already perfect, but rather his creatures, who are not. (It is true of course that the point of the creation as a whole is nevertheless to manifest the glory of God, but this is not because God needs to manifest his glory in this way, which he does not. Obviously this raises further theological questions, but the discussion then concerns which view of God to take, not whether final causes exist.)

Spinoza’s final argument against final causes is:

E. Purported explanations couched in terms of final causes inevitably reduce to appeals to ignorance, which explain nothing.

“For example,” says Spinoza in expanding on this objection, “if a stone falls from a roof on to some one's head and kills him, [defenders of final causality] will demonstrate by their new method, that the stone fell in order to kill the man; for, if it had not by God's will fallen with that object, how could so many circumstances (and there are often many concurrent circumstances) have all happened together by chance?” If it is suggested instead that the wind blew the stone off of the roof while the man happened to be walking by, the defender of final causes will ask why the stone fell at exactly that time. And so on. The only explanation the defender of final causes will accept is one that appeals to the inscrutable will of God. And yet this, Spinoza says, is no explanation at all.

Here again there are several problems. First, Spinoza’s scenario is a complete travesty of the Scholastic understanding of final causes. The view of writers like Aquinas, anyway, was not that nothing ever happens due to chance. Stones sometimes do indeed fall off of roofs and kill hapless passersby, entirely by accident. It is true that the Scholastic view was that even chance events presuppose final causality, but not in the sense Spinoza imagines. To take a stock example, when a farmer plows a field and discovers buried treasure, this event is correctly described as a chance occurrence, unintended by anyone. Still, this chance event was made possible by the farmer’s decision to plow and some other person’s decision to bury treasure at exactly that spot, neither of which was due to chance. In general, the Scholastics would say, chance events always presuppose, at some level, the operation of causal regularities manifesting (as all efficient causes do) finality or end-directedness.

Second, it is simply false to say that Scholastic explanations in terms of final causality necessarily reduced to empty appeals to an inscrutable divine will. For Thomists, anyway, to discover the end toward which something is directed is to discover something about its nature or essence, something which could not have been otherwise. If things did not have the causal powers they do in fact have, they simply would not be the things they are. We are not in the position of saying (for example) that eyeballs are for seeing only because God arbitrarily decided to make them for seeing, as if he could have made them instead for digesting food or for flying. Such pseudo-explanatory appeals to sheer divine fiat might be the logical outcome of the nominalist rejection of universals and essences, but they were no part of the Thomistic view of divine creation.

Finally, as Della Rocca points out, to complain that we do not know what God’s purposes are would not (even if it were generally true) be to show that he does not have any purposes, and thus it does nothing to show that there are no final causes.

All told, then, Spinoza’s arguments against final causes are about as good as those of the other early modern philosophers – that is to say, not good at all.

III. Implications of abandoning final causes

Where Spinoza does have something plausible to say about final causes is in his discussion of what would follow from abandoning them. Lurking in the background of his discussion here is the objection his critics would raise against his pantheism to the effect that Deus sive Natura would seem less than perfect if the evil and ugliness we see in the world around us were thought to follow necessarily from his nature. Spinoza answers that our ordinary conceptions of good and evil, order and disorder, beauty and ugliness derive from belief in final causes, so that if the latter is abandoned so too must the former be abandoned. And when that is done, we will see that we have no basis for describing anything that follows necessarily from Deus sive Natura as evil, ugly, etc. Such judgments reflect only our parochial concern with ourselves, rather than an informed understanding of our (relatively trivial) place in the larger scheme of things.

Here at last, I would say, Spinoza is right: Our ordinary conceptions of good and evil, order and disorder, beauty and ugliness – and indeed, any conception of these things – cannot survive the abandonment of final causes. And absolutely nothing that human beings might either suffer or perpetrate can consistently be judged evil, ugly, or disordered in their absence. That is precisely why the world has grown progressively uglier, more disordered, and more evil and irrational the more thoroughly it has assimilated the anti-teleological worldview of Spinoza and the other moderns.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

TLS radio podcast

My recent interview on The James Allen Show is now available for your listening pleasure. Go here and follow the relevant link.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Descartes’ “clear and distinct perception” argument

The “clear and distinct perception” argument is one of two arguments for mind-body dualism Descartes gives in the sixth of his famous Meditations on First Philosophy. It can be summarized as follows:

1. Whatever I have a clear and distinct idea of is capable of existing just as I understand it, at least in principle (e.g. if God creates it that way).

2. I have a clear and distinct idea of myself as simply a thinking, non-extended thing.

3. I have a clear and distinct idea of my body as simply an extended, non-thinking thing.

4. So I and my body are capable, at least in principle, of existing apart from each other.

5. So I am distinct from my body.

Does the argument work? Most contemporary philosophers would say No. I would say No and Yes and No.

Huh? Bear with me.

Here’s the first “No” part. For one thing, Descartes is, by all accounts, wrong to think of extension as the essence of matter, and thus as the essence of the human body. From an Aristotelian-Thomistic perspective (which is my perspective) there is obvious reason to reject this view, since A-T rejects the entire modern mechanistic conception of matter of which it is just a variation. But even those who accept this mechanistic conception – which includes almost all contemporary philosophers, even if (usually) only implicitly and unreflectively – would allow that “extension” (i.e. those properties of matter which can be defined geometrically, more or less) is too crimped a way of spelling out the mechanistic idea. They would allow all sorts of other mathematically quantifiable properties to feature in our characterization of matter as well. (What they share with Descartes is the insistence that, whatever matter is, formal causes and, especially, final causes will simply not be allowed to count as part of the material world.)

For another thing, A-T would also obviously reject Descartes’ implied assimilation of the self to the mind. Though the mind (specifically the intellect) is immaterial, “I” am nevertheless not distinct from my body from the A-T point of view, certainly not without serious qualification. In fairness to Descartes, he did not – contrary to the standard caricature (one now being vigorously combated by Descartes scholars) – actually hold that the body is non-essential to a human being, as if we were all really just ghosts trapped in machines (to allude to Ryle’s famous parody). He explicitly denies that “I” am in my body the way a pilot is in a ship, as if the body were an inessential excrescence. On the contrary, he believed that soul and body form a kind of organic unity, that a human being was an irreducible composite of the two, having attributes (namely appetites, emotions, and sensations) which cannot be predicated of either the soul alone or the body alone. The trouble is that, having abandoned the Aristotelian idea that the soul is the form of the body, and emphasizing as he does that it is the ego itself (and not just some part of the person) which is distinct from the body, he had a devil of a time explaining just how such an organic unity was possible. Hence it is no surprise that the “ghost in the machine” conception of human nature came to be seen as paradigmatically Cartesian, whatever Descartes’ own intentions. (Notoriously, what a thinker wants to conclude is not always what his premises actually imply.)

So, to the extent that Descartes’ argument depends on these assumptions, it is open to criticism. But it can fairly easily be fixed up to avoid these problems. For “myself” in step 2 and “I” in steps 4 and 5, just read “the mind” or (more exactly – and as we’ll see in a moment, as much in line with Descartes’ understanding of the mind as with the A-T view) “the intellect.” For “extension” just plug in either the Aristotelian view of matter or your favorite mechanistic conception. (It makes no difference for this specific argument.) Even if the resulting argument does not get us to precisely Descartes’ brand of dualism, it will definitely get us to some form of dualism, if it is otherwise unobjectionable.

Is it otherwise unobjectionable? Here we come to the “Yes” part of my initial reply. The main objection contemporary philosophers have to Descartes’ argument concerns its second premise, and it is an objection Hobbes raised in the Third Set of Objections to the Meditations. Even if it is conceded that Descartes has a clear and distinct idea of himself as a thinking thing, how can he be so sure that that which is doing the thinking is non-extended or, more generally, non-corporeal? The fact that he doesn’t conceive of corporeality when he conceives of thinking doesn’t show that thinking isn’t corporeal, any more than conceiving of triangularity without conceiving of trilaterality shows that something could be triangular without being trilateral.

So, Descartes needs some way of showing that thought can occur in the absence of anything corporeal or bodily. How about (after the fashion of some contemporary dualists) an appeal to metaphysical possibility, in particular to possible worlds? As in: “It is metaphysically possible for the mind to exist apart from the body” or “There is at least one possible world where mind exists apart from the body”? Nix that. From an A-T point of view, anyway, while these statements are perfectly true, they presuppose dualism and thus cannot be used to establish it. You cannot know what is possible for a thing, or what it might be like in various possible worlds, until you know its nature or essence. (Contemporary philosophers who try to define essence in terms of possible worlds thus have things backwards.) Hence, you cannot assert that there is a possible world in which mind exists apart from body, or that it is metaphysically possible for mind to exist apart from body, until you know the mind’s nature. And its nature is exactly what the Hobbesian objection calls into question.

A better way to show that thought can be incorporeal is just to show that it cannot be corporeal. This is a better way for two reasons. First, it establishes an even stronger claim than the one in question – always nice work if you can get it. Second, it is easy to do.

The reason is one we have examined in several earlier posts (such as this one). The objects of the intellect are abstract concepts, which are universal rather than particular, and determinate or exact rather than indeterminate or inexact. And the thoughts in which these concepts feature are (at least often) as universal, determinate, and exact as the concepts themselves. Yet nothing material has or can have these characteristics. Material objects and processes are inherently particular rather than universal, and also inherently indeterminate or inexact. Hence thoughts cannot possibly be identified with anything material. The point can be and has been developed at greater length (by writers like James Ross, and by me in The Last Superstition and Philosophy of Mind and in the earlier post just linked to) but the basic idea is fairly simple, is as old as Plato and Aristotle, and was endorsed and developed by various Scholastic writers.

The irony is that Descartes himself at least hints at this very argument when, earlier in the Sixth Meditation, he draws a rigid distinction between imagination on the one hand – which he apparently takes to be corporeal – and intellect on the other, which alone he identifies with the self he takes to be incorporeal. (The famous example of the chiliagon – which the intellect understands even though the imagination cannot form an image of it – is presented in this context.) This parallels the Aristotelian-Scholastic doctrine that intellect is immaterial while sensation and imagination are material. It is often supposed that Descartes assimilates sensation, imagination, and intellect into an amorphous something called “the mind,” but this is not the case. His view of their relationship is actually fairly close to that of his Scholastic predecessors. Here as elsewhere Descartes is, as contemporary Descartes scholars have made an industry of documenting, far more Scholastic than one would expect the Father of Modern Philosophy to be. (If only he had been consistently Scholastic, he would have really had something! – though he would not have had this claim to paternity. But we’d all have been better off, and Descartes could have spared himself a few millennia in purgatory.)

The thing is, once this Platonic-Aristotelian-Scholastic point has been developed in support of (our reformulated version of) premise 2, it more or less establishes dualism all by itself, so that the rest of the argument becomes otiose. Hence, Descartes’ argument works, but only if reformulated to such an extent that it amounts to little more than a restatement of an idea that had more or less already been around for millennia. The distinctively Cartesian bits – the stuff about “clear and distinct perception,” the assimilation of the self to the intellect, and the conception of matter as extension – are either wrong or irrelevant. So, as a Cartesian argument for dualism, the argument doesn’t really work after all. What is true in it isn’t new, and what is new isn’t true.

How typically modern!

More on the APA petition controversy

Keith Pavlischek, who has been reporting on the APA petition controversy for First Things, has the latest developments here. (And see this earlier post of Pavlischek's for a summary of the broader political and cultural trends of which this controversy is but a part. The commissars are just getting started, folks. Brace yourselves.)

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

TLS on radio

Arizona readers and podcast listeners everywhere might be interested to know that I will be on The James Allen Show this Saturday (April 11th) to discuss The Last Superstition, from roughly 9-10pm PST. (See here for a previous radio interview about TLS.)

I’m in Midterm Grading Hell this week, so posting will be light.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Down with Feezer!

My What’s Wrong with the World co-blogger Steve Burton alerts me to a YouTube response to his commercial for The Last Superstition. Steve kindly defends me against it, but he needn’t have. “Proudfootz” (the creator of this response) is obviously not attacking me but rather someone named "Edward Feezer." (My name is pronounced "Fay-zer.") After all, I defend individual rights and modern science in my book – a central theme of TLS being, of course, that neither can be made sense of apart from a classical, and especially Aristotelian, metaphysical framework – while this Feezer guy (whoever he is) rejects them. I say nothing at all against capitalism, democracy, or religious toleration while this Feezer guy apparently attacks them bitterly. Feezer teaches at "Pasadena Community College," while I teach at Pasadena City College. Feezer compares Luther and Calvin to Hitler and Stalin, while I never do any such thing. My book is not a defense of Catholicism specifically, while Feezer's is. Feezer never addresses any of the standard criticisms of the traditional theistic arguments, while I do so at length. Etc. Whoever this strange “Feezer” person is, he has apparently written a book with the same title as mine and hopes to cash in on whatever success TLS has had. Thanks for exposing him, Proudfootz!

(BTW, who wants to bet that Brian Liar links to Proudfootz's video as a useful "summary" of TLS for his readers? C'mon, any takers?)

UPDATE: Proudfootz has been trying vainly to defend himself against several critics in combox exchanges both at What's Wrong with the World and at YouTube. I finally stepped in at W4 to set him straight. We'll see if he has the decency to correct his many errors, or indeed just to take down his silly video once and for all. Though I for one would miss it -- as unintentional comedy, it's brilliant!

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Give me that old time atheism

Last night I was dipping into Roy Abraham Varghese’s Great Thinkers on Great Questions, an interesting collection of interviews with a number of prominent philosophers (including A. J. Ayer, G. E. M. Anscombe, Alvin Plantinga, Richard Swinburne, Ralph McInerny, Brian Leftow, Gerard Hughes, and many others) on topics mostly related in one way or another to religion. Some of Ayer’s remarks brought to mind how different earlier generations of agnostics and atheists had been, not merely culturally (as Roger Scruton has noted) but philosophically. Ayer, though a notorious lifelong foe of religion, was not a materialist. In his famous book Language, Truth, and Logic, he attempted (as he reminds us in the Varghese volume) to reduce physical objects to “sense-contents,” entities which were intended to be neutral between mind and matter but which were in fact (as Ayer admits) closer to the mental than to the physical side of the traditional mental/physical divide. Hence the resulting position was “much more nearly mentalistic than physicalistic.” And to the end of his life he apparently always rejected any attempt to reduce the mental to the physical.

The reason for this is that even agnostic and atheist philosophers of Ayer’s generation generally recognized that materialism is just prima facie implausible. As I have noted in some earlier posts (here and here), and as I discuss at length in The Last Superstition, dualism was by no means a deviation from the broadly mechanistic conception of matter contemporary philosophy has inherited from the 17th century, but rather a natural consequence of that conception, given its highly abstract and mathematical redefinition of the material world. If matter is what the mechanistic view says it is, then (it seems) there is simply nowhere else to locate color, odor, taste, sound, etc. (as common sense understands these qualities, anyway), and nowhere else to locate meaning (given the banishment of final causes from the material world), than in something immaterial. And until about the 1960s, most philosophers (the occasional exception like Hobbes notwithstanding) seemed to realize that, short of returning to an Aristotelian hylemorphic philosophy of nature, the only plausible alternatives to dualism were views that tended to put the accent on mind rather than on matter – such as idealism, phenomenalism, or neutral monism.

The last of these, as its name implies, was officially committed to the view that the basic stuff out of which the world is constructed is “neutral” between mind and matter, but notoriously it tends to collapse into either phenomenalism or idealism. In my atheist days, it was the version of neutral monism developed by Bertrand Russell (or rather a riff on that version developed by F. A. Hayek) that I took to be the most plausible approach to the mind-body problem. (In recent philosophy, Russell’s views have been developed, in a way that seeks to avoid any sort of idealism, by Michael Lockwood; and, in a way that to some extent or other concedes their idealistic implications, by Galen Strawson and David Chalmers. In my Russellian days I was more attracted to Lockwood’s approach.) After a brief flirtation with materialism while an undergrad, I was more or less inoculated against it by John Searle’s writings, and came to regard the Russellian approach as the most plausible way to defend a naturalistic (if non-materialistic) view of the world.

Most naturalistic philosophers are not at all attracted to this approach, however, precisely (I would suggest) because of its tendency to collapse into some sort of philosophical idealism. For to make mind out to be the ultimate reality is – as the history of 19th century idealism shows – to adopt a view which must surely strike most naturalists as “too close for comfort” to a religious view of the world. To be sure, Chalmers and Strawson do not take their position in anything like a religious direction, but so far few other naturalists have been willing to follow them.

But if they were wise, they would do so. Chalmers and Strawson are in fact among the most interesting philosophers of mind writing today, in part because of their attempt to defend a kind of naturalism while acknowledging the very deep philosophical difficulties inherent in materialism. (Strawson famously dismisses materialism as “moonshine.”) As I have been lamenting in recent posts, most contemporary philosophical naturalists (to say nothing of non-philosophers who are naturalists, such as the New Atheists) have only the most crude understanding of the theological views they dismiss so contemptuously. In the same way, they tend also to be absurdly overconfident about the prospects of a materialist or physicalist account of the mind.

Earlier generations of philosophical atheists or agnostics – Ayer, Russell, Popper, to name just three – knew how difficult it is to defend such an account, and thus avoided grounding their atheism or agnosticism in a specifically materialist metaphysics. Some of their contemporary successors – Lockwood, Chalmers, Strawson, Nagel, Searle, Fodor, McGinn, Levine, among others – have, to varying degrees, some awareness of the same problems. Consequently, at least some of these people realize that naturalism itself (which seems most plausible precisely when spelled out in materialist terms) is by no means obviously right; it is something that requires a very great deal of effort to defend, and cannot blithely dismiss its rivals. Unfortunately, the bulk of contemporary philosophical naturalists – Dennett and Rey being by no means idiosyncratic in this regard – seem forever lost in their dogmatic slumbers.

ADDENDUM: I should note that Strawson does sometimes call his version of Russell's position "real materialism," and that Lockwood has occasionally said similar things. By contrast, Grover Maxwell, another Russellian who influenced both Lockwood and Strawson, repudiates any kind of "materialist" label even though his views are more or less identical to theirs. And Chalmers sometimes characterizes his own variation on Russellianism as a kind of "dualism"! So, the terminology here can get confusing. The point is that all of these authors reject materialism in the standard (Smart, Armstrong, early Putnam, Davidson, Dennett, Churchland, et al.) sense.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Kalb on TLS

James Kalb, author of The Tyranny of Liberalism, kindly reviews The Last Superstition over at his blog. I thank him for his comments, but would want to clarify a couple of points. First, it’s not Christianity per se the truth of which I argue for in the book, but rather the truth of certain praeambula fidei or “preambles” of the Christian faith, namely the existence of God, the immortality of the soul, and the reality of the natural moral law. (To be sure, I do think that there are compelling arguments for the truth of Christianity specifically, but making that case would take another book.) And while I do hold that faith often involves (in Kalb’s words) “the habit of standing by views that are demonstrably correct in the face of nonrational temptations to abandon them” – this is, as I argue in TLS, what we do when we continue to trust in the goodness of God in the face of evil – I would not say that that is all there is to faith. In the strict theological sense, faith is an assent to truths known to be divinely revealed, and which could not be known other than through divine revelation (e.g. the Trinitarian nature of God). Part of what I wanted to emphasize in the book is that (contrary to the usual caricature) faith does not involve an ungrounded will to believe; though it involves trusting in what divine authority has revealed, the claim that such-and-such really has been revealed is nevertheless something for which rational arguments should (and, in the case of the central claims of Christianity, can) be given. But precisely because that which is “taken on faith” in this way cannot be known directly through philosophical arguments, it is bound to be more mysterious to us than that which can be directly known in that way. So, I agree with Kalb that we should avoid too rationalistic an account of the object of faith – my point was rather that the act of faith is still perfectly rational.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Stove Award winner announced!

The late Australian philosopher David Stove once ran a competition to find the Worst Argument in the World. Stove’s competition has now been revived – by me, just now – and the winner will be announced in the very next sentence. It’s Thomas E. Ricks, noted Washington Post military correspondent and author of Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq and The Gamble: General David Petraeus and the American Military Adventure in Iraq, 2006-2008.

Ricks and Keith Pavlischek of First Things have been carrying on an exchange over the justice of the war in Iraq. In response to Ricks’ (quite correct) observation that “invading a country pre-emptively on false premises [fails to meet] Aquinas’ second condition” for a just war (viz. the just cause condition), Pavlischek responded (also quite correctly) that Ricks’ point is irrelevant to the present case, since President Bush and those who voted to authorize the war did not know at the time of authorization that the premises in question (e.g. those concerning WMD) were false.

Well, folks, Ricks’ rejoinder is what won him the Stove Award. Drum roll, please…

And here it is:

It is an interesting response but I am not buying it. Invading Iraq was wrong and executed on false beliefs, even if he and Sen. Levin, and many others, thought they were right. If what you believed was false but you thought it was true, that makes it okay? Would Augustine settle for such a low standard?

For most readers, I trust that no comment is needed. Ricks’ worthiness of the Stove Award is manifest and unchallengeable. Despite some formidable competition, at the end of the day no other candidates even came close. (Eat your hearts out, Georges and Brian!)

But I suspect that Ricks, given his evident humility, will fail to see why he should be so honored. So, some commentary, just for him.

Suppose Ricks comes across a starving homeless Iraq war vet begging on the sidewalk and, moved with compassion, hands him a Jackson. Suppose further that said vet takes his $20, walks into the nearest McDonald’s, and orders a much-needed meal. After being handed the money, the clerk runs his special pen across it and… it’s a counterfeit! (One that someone else had passed the hapless Ricks earlier in the day.) The vet is arrested. He is unspeakably abused in jail by a gang of anti-war protesters who’d been arrested the same day for vandalizing a Starbucks, and into whose cell he had been placed. At the end of his rope, he commits suicide.

Ricks is guilty of a horrendous crime, is he not? For he gave the vet the $20 bill on a false premise, viz. that the bill was genuine. And look what happened as a result!

“But he didn’t know it was a counterfeit! His intentions were noble!” you say?

Let’s let Ricks himself respond to that dodge: “If what you believed was false but you thought it was true, that makes it okay? Would Augustine settle for such a low standard?” By his own words he stands condemned.

Or not. In reality, of course, Ricks would in this scenario be totally blameless. He did what all of us must do, and the most that any of us can do: He did the best he could with the information available to him. He was also tragically mistaken. But that tells us nothing about his moral character, or the moral character of his act. In other words, Ricks’ implicit premise, viz. “Someone who acts on false premises, even unknowingly, is guilty of moral failing” is false.

Blindingly obvious, you say? Why of course it is. Except to someone absolutely desperate to accuse those who supported the war in Iraq, not simply of erroneous judgment, but of grave immorality.

A “fiasco” indeed. And that’s why you get the Stove Award, Mr. R!