Wednesday, July 29, 2009

If Confucius or Aristotle did stand-up…

…this is how it would go (HT: Siris):

Anscombe in August

Julia Driver has written a useful article on Elizabeth Anscombe for the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. (HT: Siris) Imprint Academic recently published Faith in a Hard Ground: Essays on Religion, Philosophy, and Ethics by G. E. M. Anscombe, an anthology devoted to Anscombe’s work on theological topics (and a fascinating one, judging from the parts I’ve had time to read so far). If you’ve got a spare eighty bucks, Roger Teichmann’s The Philosophy of Elizabeth Anscombe also appeared recently. If you’ve been looking for some reading material for the last month of the summer, now you’ve got it.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

The illusion of plausibility

Suppose I asserted that the difference of the positions of B and G# in the A major scale was identical with, supervened upon, or was in some other way explicable in terms of, the greater than relation that the number 23 bears to the number 18. You would no doubt wonder what the hell I was talking about. Just as notes in a scale are one thing and numbers are another, so too are positions in the scale and positions in the sequence of numbers different things, and that’s that. Relations of identity, supervenience, explanation, etc. simply don’t hold between the two. (Of course, there are mathematical relationships between notes in a scale; the point is that the relationships between notes are clearly not reducible to or entirely explicable in terms of mathematical relationships.)

Note that this has nothing to do with the lack of a law-like correlation between the two – whatever that could mean in this context, since we’re talking about abstractions rather than concrete objects or events. And even if we reverted to speaking of concrete objects and events, we don’t think that the reason talk of identity, supervenience, etc. makes no sense in this context is that we find no regular correlation in nature between (for example) the playing of B on a musical instrument and there being 23 of something in the vicinity. Correlation or lack thereof just has nothing to do with it. Even if we found that some such bizarre correlation held, we wouldn’t think “Aha! B in the A major scale must be identical to or supervenient upon the number 23!” Such a claim would be just as unintelligible in the presence of the correlation as in the absence of it.

I propose that the same thing is true of claims like this: “Having a thought with the content that P is identical to, supervenient upon, or otherwise explicable in terms of having a sentence with the meaning that P encoded in the brain”; “The semantic-cum-logical relations between thoughts are identical to, supervenient upon, or otherwise explicable in terms of the causal relations between brain events”; and other claims of this sort. Such claims are simply nonsensical. Logical relations are one thing, causal relations are another, and that’s that. If you don’t see this, either you don’t understand what a logical relation is or you don’t understand what a causal relation is – or, more likely, you are in the grip of some ideology that leads you to speak nonsense. Similarly with the claim that having a thought involves having a sentence in the head. Having the thought that 2 + 2 + 4 – that is to say, grasping the proposition that 2 + 2 = 4 – is one thing, and having some sentence instantiated somewhere (whether on a chalkboard, in a notebook, in a computer, in a brain, or wherever) is another, and that’s that. If you don’t see this, then, again, either you don’t understand what a proposition is, or you don’t understand what a sentence is, or you are in the grip of some ideology.

The ideology in question is, of course, materialism (or physicalism or naturalism, if you prefer). If you start with the assumption that thinking simply must be identical to, supervenient upon, or otherwise explicable in terms of brain activity, then it will seem to you at least plausible that logical relations might be reducible to causal relations, thoughts identifiable with the having of brain sentences, etc. But no one would think these things plausible even for a moment if they were not already seeing the world through materialist glasses – indeed, they would take the evident absurdity of such proposals as prima facie evidence of the falsity of materialism. (And that is, I propose, part of the reason why most philosophers historically have not been materialists.)

“But what about the correlations holding between certain mental events and certain brain events?” Well, what about them? Again, no one would think for a moment that a correlation between (say) the playing of B on a musical instrument and there being 23 of something in the vicinity is even prima facie evidence for the plausibility of the claim that the difference of the positions of B and G# in the A major scale was identical with, supervened upon, or was in some other way explicable in terms of, the greater than relation that the number 23 bears to the number 18. Or if he did think so, it could only be because he is already in the grip of some bizarre ideology (Pythagoreanism?) which independently insists already on there being some deep metaphysical connection between musical relationships and mathematical ones – and which has deadened thereby his ability to spot clear category mistakes.

From an Aristotelian point of view, such correlations are in any event not the least bit surprising despite the falsity of materialism. Since soul and body are related as form and matter, mental and physiological correlations are no more surprising than the “correlation” that exists between the form of some particular tree and the matter than composes it. But in neither case is there any question of identity, supervenience, etc., since form and matter in general are simply irreducible.

Peter Geach said it well: “When we hear of some new attempt to explain reasoning or language or choice naturalistically, we ought to react as if we were told that someone had squared the circle or proved the square root of 2 to be rational. Only the mildest curiosity is in order – how well has the fallacy been concealed?” (The Virtues, p. 52) Like Pythagoreanism, materialism is philosophically interesting, often defended by thinkers of genius – and ultimately simply and clearly wrong.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

My brush with greatness

Now that the Michael Jackson hoopla has died down somewhat, I can tell my story. Or rather, since it has for some reason only now occurred to me that it might be worth a laugh to blog about it, I’ll do so. Yes, I met Michael Jackson.

It was the mid-1980s and I was working in a movie theater in the San Fernando Valley. Some Disney movie had just been re-released – I think it was Snow White, or Pinocchio. It was a slow summer weekday afternoon when he came in, with two bodyguards, to see it. (The man-child thing was a theme even then.) Few people were in the theater at the time, but naturally his presence caused a bit of a stir among those who were – this was just post-Thriller.

We had two encounters. (No cheap jokes, please; besides, I was all grown up by then, so...) First, when he came out of the restroom before the movie started, I happened to be putting up a rope line, within the theater, in preparation for some later movie. He nearly walked right into me and exclaimed, in startled falsetto, “Which way do I go?” Stifling a laugh, I pointed him in the right direction.

In those days, before the movie started, they used to show a promo for the Will Rogers Institute, asking for donations. The lights would come up, one of us ushers would go from row to row with a can collecting whatever people felt like giving, and then the regular trailers would resume. On duty that day, I had the honor of taking his donation. As I recall, he peered up over his sunglasses and, once again in falsetto, asked “Is this for Will Rogers?” as he handed it to me. I think it was all of a dollar. (Did I mention this was post-Thriller?)

And that was it, folks. If you’ve read this far, I’m sorry I can’t give you the last minute of your life back.

By the bye, if you take a ride in Doc Brown’s time machine back to circa 1984 and pop into Mann Valley West so as to witness my historic meeting with the King of Pop, do NOT eat the nachos. One of my co-workers was, shall we say, something of a prankster. ‘Nuff said.

Next in this exciting series: I see John Larroquette at a gas station in Studio City!

UnBeguiled, UnHinged, and UnWorthy of further attention

If you’ve been following the exchange with UnBeguiled in the comboxes here and especially in the post immediately below this one, you know that I’ve been trying very patiently to get him to see the difference between an empirical scientific issue and a philosophical or metaphysical one. His latest “response” (see the combox to the previous post) was to sum up my position as the claim that “Facts don’t matter.” See, if you so much as distinguish two fields of study – even two fields of study that everyone else also agrees are distinct -- then you must not care about facts. Got it? Me neither.

Could it get any worse? Turns out it can. In the combox to his own latest post, he opines that “Feser's statement [about the irrelevance of questions of physics to the argument from motion] effectively removes him from the community of reasonable conversation, but it seems to me it is much worse than that. His is an act of betrayal. He has betrayed our common humanity.”

It goes on.

This is, I must say, simply so bizarre and unhinged that I cannot even get angry about it. The guy is just out to lunch.

So long, UnBeguiled. Hope you can get the help you need, fella.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Beguiled by scientism

Over at his own blog, UnBeguiled (occasional commenter at this blog) criticizes the argument from motion as presented in The Last Superstition. Unfortunately, he fundamentally misunderstands it. He claims that by “motion” I mean ”acceleration”; in fact, “motion” in the context of the argument means the actualization of a potential, and applies to all kinds of change, having nothing necessarily to do with local motion in particular. He assumes that the idea of a per se or essentially ordered causal series has fundamentally to do with a simultaneity of causes and effects; in fact it has to do with the instrumental character of (all but one of) such a series’ causes, their having (apart from the first member) no independent causal power. (Examples of simultaneous causes and effects are useful for illustrating the idea, and such a series is bound to trace eventually to a first cause operating here and now; but simultaneity per se is not what is doing the philosophical work.) In general he assumes that the argument has to do with physics; in fact it has to do with metaphysics (or, more precisely from a Neo-Scholastic point of view, with philosophy of nature, but the label “metaphysics” will do given the way that term tends to be used in contemporary philosophy).

Since I make all of this clear in the book, I don’t know why he so badly misreads the argument, unless it is because (to paraphrase Wittgenstein) a picture is holding him captive. That picture is scientism, the thesis that the questions and methods of empirical science are the only real questions and methods there are. Since scientism itself is not an empirical hypothesis, not something the truth or falsity of which can be established by empirical scientific means, it is (when not so qualified as to be no longer interesting) self-undermining. Somehow that never seems to weaken its grip over those beguiled by it, despite their oft-purported superior rationality. Having once hit upon the idea – usually as a reaction against some body of religious doctrine they’ve become disillusioned with – they fall absolutely head over heels in love with it and become insensitive to criticism. Scientism just can’t be wrong, you see, because when they first became aware that there was something called “reason” as opposed to “faith,” that reason appeared to them in scientistic form, and to abandon the scientism would seem to them to be to abandon reason too. This is tosh, but tosh that is all the more powerful to the extent that those who buy into it think themselves for that reason uniquely immune to tosh. It is no wonder, then, that despite the fact that I explain all of this too in the book, UnBeguiled remains UnUnBeguiled.

Anyway, be all that as it may: What UnBeguiled’s (apparent) scientism keeps him from seeing is that Aristotelian-Thomistic arguments for God’s existence do not take as their starting points premises to which empirical science as that field of study is understood today is relevant. They begin instead from premises that any such science must take for granted. (That is not to say that “physics” in some sense of the word is not relevant to an argument from motion, since the boundaries between science and philosophy are not carved up in Aristotelian-Thomistic philosophy the way they are by other traditions in philosophy. The point is just that the sort of premises that an argument from motion starts from would, the way things tend to be carved up by most scientists and philosophers today, better be thought of as claims in metaphysics or philosophy of nature rather than physics per se.)

In the case at hand, what is relevant is the actuality/potentiality (or act/potency) distinction. As those familiar with the history of ancient philosophy (and TLS readers) know, the origin of this distinction lies in Aristotle’s response to Parmenides. Parmenides attempted to demonstrate a priori that change is impossible. Aristotle responded, in part, that we can understand how change is possible when we see that there is, in addition to being and non-being (the notions Parmenides makes use of), the third category of what exists potentially – that which is not actual and may never be actualized, but which is not nothing either. Hence it is not enough to say of a rubber ball (to make use of an example from TLS) that it is actually solid and spherical but not actually melted and not actually the number 23. For it is melted in potency or potentially, but it is not the number 23 even potentially. Once we see this, we can see why change is possible: the ball can melt because in doing so it is not going from sheer non-being to being (which Parmenides argued was incoherent) but rather from being in potency to being in actuality.

There are other reasons why we must recognize an act/potency distinction. For example (and for reasons I spell out in TLS and have alluded to in previous posts), we have to recognize in all efficient causes something like final causality or directedness toward an end if we are to make causation intelligible at all. But to recognize this is to recognize the existence of potency as distinct from act, since a cause that is directed toward the generation of some effect even when it hasn’t yet actually generated it is in potency relative to such generation. The point, though, is that this whole discussion takes place at a deeper level than empirical science. Empirical science studies particular changes and causes; metaphysics or philosophy of nature studies the preconditions of there being any changes or causes at all. Empirical science reveals to us the specific mechanisms by which the reduction of potency to act (to put it the way the Scholastics would) occurs in this or that specific domain within the natural world; metaphysics or philosophy of nature reveals to us that such a reduction must underlie whatever those mechanisms turn out to be.

For Aristotle and the tradition he inaugurated, the most important instances of reduction of potency to act involved essentially ordered series in which some causes were instrumental relative to others (and of which simultaneous causes and effects are the most obvious examples). UnBeguiled insinuates that the notion of a per se or essentially ordered causal series is something trumped up for the purposes of religious apologetics. In fact it is nothing of the kind, unless you think Aristotle and other pagans were frantically concerned to prepare the way, millennia in advance, for Josh McDowell.

The sort of example that in TLS I follow Aquinas in using, viz. a hand’s using a stick to move a stone, is (as I note in the book) just an illustration to generate the key concepts; strictly speaking, a hand isn’t a first mover. And strictly speaking, quibbles over whether the movement of the stick occurs at exactly one and the same instant of time as the movement of the stone are not to the point either. As I emphasize in the book – and this is something UnBeguiled omits to mention – ultimately the stone, stick, and hand all depend for their very existence at any moment (forget about their movements through space) on the actualization of various potentials. For the muscles to exist here and now the potentiality of their constituent cells to constitute muscles must be actualized here and now; for the cells to be actualized in that potential, the potential of the molecules making up the cells to constitute cells must itself be actualized here and now; and so forth. This does imply simultaneity, but notice that (a) the point has nothing to do with acceleration, change of spatial location, etc., and (b) the point isn’t so much that the members of the series are simultaneous (though they are) but that they are essentially ordered: no molecules, no cells, no muscles.

The length of the series is irrelevant. As other Thomists have noted, even if an essentially ordered causal series could per impossibile go back infinitely far, since none of the causes in it have any intrinsic causal power there would have to be some purely actual unmoved mover outside it which keeps it operative. And by the same token, if there were even a single actualization of a potency, that too would suffice to lead us to a purely actual unmoved mover. Look around you; or don’t look around, just contemplate your own thoughts. Is there any actualization of a potential at all? Why, yes there is – and Boom, you’ve got your unmoved mover, whether immediately or at the end of a series. (Supposing the argument from motion is free of other problems, that is – here I’m just addressing the claims UnBeguiled makes.)

And lest UnBeguiled seek to quibble now over physiology, I should emphasize that the specific empirical details here are irrelevant as well. Whatever the details of the physics, chemistry, or physiology turn out to be, they are all going to involve the reduction of potency to act in essentially ordered causal series, because any material world at all is going to involve that. And that is all that matters for the argument. This is not “imaginary physics,” but the metaphysical precondition of there being any non-imaginary physical world at all. To refute the argument, then, it will not do simply to shout “Science!” What is needed is a serious philosophical evaluation; more Thomas Aquinas, less Thomas Dolby.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Hitting the metaphysical snooze button

One of the major themes of The Last Superstition is the significance of the early modern philosophers’ replacement of the classical teleological conception of nature with an anti-teleological or mechanistic conception. Another major theme is how utterly oblivious most contemporary intellectuals are to the nature and consequences of this revolution – about the motivations that lay behind it, its true relationship to modern science, the surprising feebleness of the arguments used to justify it, and the new and intractable problems it opened up. Most of all, they show little awareness of the deep conceptual problems inherent in the attempt to give a thoroughly mechanistic account of the world, as contemporary naturalism seeks to do. (I argue in the book that the very program is incoherent, so that naturalism, as usually understood anyway, is demonstrably false. I also provide positive arguments to show that a teleological conception of nature is rationally unavoidable – as are the theism and natural law conception of morality that the Aristotelian-Thomistic tradition derives from it.)

What is remarkable is how, just over a half-century ago, the problematic character of the modern mechanistic understanding of nature was as evident to many prominent intellectuals as it is utterly invisible to their descendants. Nor am I referring merely to Neo-Scholastics and other Thomists. In the book I quote a lengthy passage from the September 1948 Atlantic Monthly in which the then-prominent empiricist philosopher W. T. Stace – not someone with a religious or Aristotelian ax to grind – described the early moderns’ replacement of a teleological conception of the world with a mechanistic one as “the greatest revolution in human history, far outweighing in importance any of the political revolutions whose thunder has reverberated through the world,” and one which in his view necessarily undermined the foundations of morality. Moreover, he realized that this revolution was purely philosophical in character, not scientific, despite its often being conflated with (and thereby deriving an unearned prestige from) the discoveries of early modern science.

Stace thought the meaninglessness of human existence entailed by this picture of the world was something we would have to try to learn to live with. (Good luck with that.) But other thinkers of the day saw that the problems with the mechanistic conception of nature went well beyond its unhappy moral implications. They saw that it was philosophically inadequate, that it simply did not do justice to what we know about the world – indeed, to what we know about the world in part through modern science itself. They often also saw that the criticisms the early moderns had made of their medieval predecessors were superficial and unfair – and again, I’m speaking of non-Aristotelian and non-Thomistic writers here, not those with a Scholastic or Catholic stake in the controversy.

Take, for example, Alfred North Whitehead. In Science and the Modern World, based on his 1925 Lowell Lectures, he judges that the mathematical-cum-mechanistic conception of the natural world, for all its undoubted practical benefits in allowing for the prediction and control of events, is as a metaphysical theory “quite unbelievable,” the outcome of mistaking “high abstractions” for “concrete realities” (pp. 54-55). Groundlessly treating the idealizations of quantitative empirical science as if they constituted an exhaustive description of the natural order has generated an endless “oscillation” of modern philosophy between the three equally unacceptable extremes of Cartesian dualism, materialism, and idealism, as philosophers hopelessly try to make sense of the place of mind in a mechanistic world (p. 55).

Confusing the abstract and concrete is only half the problem, though, in Whitehead’s view. The other half is the difficulty the anti-teleological mechanistic revolution opened up for the understanding of causation and inductive reasoning. As I discuss at length in TLS, for the Scholastics, the main way in which final causality manifests itself in the natural world is as the concomitant of efficient causality. If some cause A regularly generates some effect or range of effects B – if fire regularly generates heat, ice cubes regularly cause the surrounding air or water to grow cooler, and so forth – this can only be because there is something in the nature of A by virtue of which it “points to” or “aims at” B specifically, as to a goal or natural end. If there is no such “pointing” or “aiming” in A – that is to say, if the generation of B is not the final cause of A – then the fact that A is an efficient cause of B, the fact that it reliably generates B specifically rather than C, D, E, or no effect at all, becomes unintelligible. This is, from an Aristotelian-Thomistic point of view, precisely why efficient causation became so problematic in modern philosophy: the denial of formal and final causes (i.e. the denial that things have natures in virtue of which they are directed toward certain ends) was bound to result in the skeptical puzzles of David Hume. (Actually, the problem of causation goes back, naturally enough, to Ockham and the early nominalists; in his “originality” as in so many other ways, Hume is vastly overrated.)

Whitehead takes a similar view, arguing that the problem of induction is generated by a mechanistic conception of matter on which for any material particular, “there is no inherent reference to any other times, past or future” (p. 51). Hence, “if the cause in itself discloses no information as to the effect, so that the first invention of it must be entirely arbitrary, it follows at once that science is impossible, except in the sense of establishing entirely arbitrary connections which are not warranted by anything intrinsic to the natures either of causes or effects. Some variant of Hume’s philosophy has generally prevailed among men of science. But scientific faith has risen to the occasion, and has tacitly removed the philosophic mountain.” (p. 4)

By “faith” having “risen to the occasion,” what Whitehead means is that in the absence of any objective, intelligible connection between causes and effects, the scientific enterprise can have no rational foundation, so that scientists who embrace the mechanistic philosophy of nature and the Humeanism that is its sequel in effect carry out their work on the basis of a groundless commitment. Contrary to the standard caricature of the moderns vs. medievals dispute as a conflict between sober rationality and blind faith, Whitehead regards the moderns as the fideists and the medievals, whose Aristotelian metaphysics made nature intelligible through and through, as the partisans of “unbridled rationalism” (p. 9). Indeed, “the clergy were in principle rationalists, whereas the men of science were content with a simple faith in the order of nature… This attitude satisfied the Royal Society but not the Church. It also satisfied Hume and has satisfied subsequent empiricists.” (p. 51)

“Accordingly,” Whitehead says, “we must recur to the method of the school-divinity as explained by the Italian medievalists” if we are to avoid skepticism about induction (p. 44); in particular, we must return to something like the Scholastic idea that universal natures can be abstracted from particulars. Of course, Whitehead himself was no Aristotelian or Thomist, putting forward as he did his own novel process metaphysics. But he saw that something had to be put in place of the inadequate mechanistic philosophy of nature of the moderns, and that there were at least elements in the medieval picture that it replaced – in particular its acknowledgement that teleology is an objective feature of the world – that needed to be revived.

Another writer of this period who perceived the inadequacies of the mechanistic revolution is E. A. Burtt, whose The Metaphysical Foundations of Modern Physical Science (first published in 1924, revised in 1932) is a classic study of the history of that revolution, and essential reading for anyone who wants to understand it. One of Burtt’s themes is the way in which the mind-body problem and the problem of skepticism are natural outcomes of the mechanistic view of nature, which so radically divorces the common sense “manifest image” from the “scientific image” (to borrow Wilfrid Sellars’ language) that there seems no way in principle to bring them back together again. Another theme is the way in which the moderns insisted on forcing reality to fit their method rather than making their method fit reality, and how such “wishful thinking” and “uncritical confidence” underlay their wholesale chucking-out of Scholasticism in favor of a new, purely quantificational conception of nature.

I quote Burtt at some length in TLS and won’t repeat the quotes here. Another writer who briefly made some of the same points was Basil Willey, who tells us in The Seventeenth Century Background (1934) that “this [modern] science has achieved what it has achieved precisely by abstracting from the whole of ‘reality’ those aspects which are amenable to its methods. There is no point in denying that only thus can ‘scientific’ discovery be made. What we need to remember, however, is that we have to do here with a transference of interests rather than with the mere ‘exantlation’ of new truth or the mere rejection of error.” (p. 23) In other words, the fact that a science which focuses only on those aspects of nature which can be analyzed in mechanistic-cum-mathematical terms succeeds mightily in uncovering those aspects (as modern science undeniably has) tells us absolutely nothing about whether nature has any other – non-mechanistic, non-mathematically-quantifiable – aspects. The early moderns by no means disproved the metaphysics of the Scholastics; they simply changed the subject. “Galileo typifies the direction of modern interests, in this instance, not in refuting St. Thomas, but in taking no notice of him.” (p. 25)

Then there is R. G. Collingwood, who in the thirties, in his lectures on The Idea of Nature (and as Marjorie Grene reminds us in her 1964 essay “Biology and Teleology”), saw contemporary biology moving back in the direction of something like Aristotle’s understanding of teleology, apart from which the internal development of an organism is unintelligible (whatever one says about the Darwinian explanation of adaptation, which is an independent question). Grene herself thought Collingwood’s prediction “startling,” certainly from the perspective of 1964, though she sympathized with his view that irreducible biological teleology was real, and presented some considerations in its defense. (Grene’s essay is available in her collection The Understanding of Nature: Essays in the Philosophy of Biology.)

Of course, the reason Grene found Collingwood’s prediction startling was that by the mid-1960s few were decrying the crude mechanism of modern philosophy of nature, certainly within academic philosophy and Anglo-American intellectual life in general. To be sure, Great Books advocates like Mortimer Adler and Robert M. Hutchins had been calling for renewed attention to writers like Aquinas throughout the thirties, forties, and fifties, as had Neo-Thomists like Maritain and Gilson. And even into the early sixties, books like Floyd Matson’s The Broken Image – now totally forgotten (though it received a nice blurb from no less than F. A. Hayek) – decried what the mechanistic revolution had done to our conception of human nature and political science. But these attitudes were getting further and further from the mainstream, and by the end of the sixties were entirely passé. Though modern intellectuals seemed for a thirty-year period mid-century to be waking from their dogmatic slumbers vis-à-vis the mechanistic revolution of the early moderns, they eventually hit the metaphysical snooze button, rolled over, and went back to sleep.

Why? Good question. No doubt the reasons are complex, but I would conjecture that the dominant factor within Anglo-American academic philosophy was the influx of European intellectuals into American universities during the thirties and forties, as they fled Nazi tyranny. In philosophy, a great many of these people were beholden to logical positivism and related ideas, and their crude scientism was passed on to their students – students who by the 1960s were dominating the field. In light of the work of Quine, Kuhn, and other critics of positivist dogmas, this scientism would eventually be softened somewhat. But these critiques were generally internal, and did not challenge scientism at the most fundamental level (despite their having resulted in recent decades in a revival of metaphysics as a sub-field within analytic philosophy). In particular, they did nothing to restore awareness of the problematic character of the mechanistic conception of nature inherited from the early moderns.

Or at least, nothing until recently. Fortunately, the alarm clock seems to be ringing once again. As I note in TLS, a return to notions surprisingly similar to the Aristotelian-Thomistic ideas of formal and final cause (even if not always under those labels) can be seen in various areas of contemporary philosophy, and in writers who have no particular interest in A-T metaphysics as such nor any theological ax to grind. To take just a few examples: In philosophy of science and general metaphysics, there is the “new essentialism” of philosophers like Brian Ellis, Nancy Cartwright, Crawford Elder, and George Molnar; in philosophy of biology there is a renewed respect for teleology in the work of writers like Andre Ariew and J. Scott Turner; in philosophy of action there are defenses of the irreducibly teleological nature of action by writers like Scott Sehon and G. F. Schueler; in ethics there is the neo-Aristotelian biological conception of the good defended by thinkers like Philippa Foot and Michael Thompson; and a general trend toward “non-reductionist” forms of naturalism can be seen in philosophy of mind and other sub-disciplines within philosophy.

Again, not all of these writers would see in their views a return to Aristotelian themes, nor would most (or even any) of them support the use to which Thomists would put those views. But however inadvertently and piecemeal, these trends do in fact constitute a revival, sometimes under novel language, of some of the metaphysical ideas of the Scholastics. And of course there are yet other contemporary analytic philosophers whose work is self-consciously Thomistic or Scholastic – for example, John Haldane, David Oderberg, Gyula Klima, Christopher F. J. Martin, James Ross, and other writers sometimes characterized (though not always by themselves) as “analytical Thomists.”

Willey writes: “As T. E. Hulme and others have pointed out, it is almost insuperably difficult to become critically conscious of one’s own habitual assumptions; ‘doctrines felt as facts’ can only be seen to be doctrines, and not facts, after great efforts of thought, and usually only with the aid of a first-rate metaphysician.” (p. 12) The lazy naturalism and scientism that inform most contemporary intellectual life, and which underlie the New Atheism, are precisely such “doctrines felt as facts,” prejudices to which most secularists do not even realize there is any rational alternative. Even with the metaphysical alarm clock ringing once more, today’s dogmatic slumberers may just hit the snooze button yet again. But maybe not. We live in hope.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

TLS on radio

John Loeffler recently interviewed me about The Last Superstition for his show Steel on Steel. You will need a username and password to listen to it, but John has kindly provided us with one: Use “feser” for both, and you can listen to his entire show archive for 40 days (including interviews with John Bolton, J. Budziszewski, David Novak, Tom Tancredo, James Kalb,and many others). The interview begins about halfway into the show.

(For earlier radio interviews about TLS go here.)

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Declining standards

For Nietzsche, European civilization has been in decline since Plato. For Heidegger, the rot set in even earlier, with the Pre-Socratics. It is widely held among secularists that the history of Western civilization between the rise of Christianity and the Enlightenment was a centuries-long dark age that stalled the scientific progress that had been initiated by the Greeks and only restarted with Bacon, Galileo, Descartes, and Co. Marxists tell us that the entire history of the human race is a history of one form of oppression supplanted by another. Feminists tell us that it is, above all, a history of men oppressing women. Multiculturalists tell us it is a history of the West oppressing the rest.

Other examples could be given. The idea that vast stretches of human history – centuries, even millennia – have been shrouded in moral and intellectual darkness is taken very seriously.

Except when that idea is given a conservative twist. When a conservative says that things have been getting worse since the 1960s, or since FDR, or since the Enlightenment, or (as Richard Weaver says in Ideas Have Consequences and as I argue in The Last Superstition) since William of Ockham, the very idea of a decades- or centuries-long decline is dismissed as inherently crackpot, the ravings of a misanthropic crank or misfit.

Why the double standard? Just asking, as they say.

(The obvious answer might seem to be that the developments bemoaned by conservatives are “progressive” ones, and thus couldn’t possibly mark a decline. Out of charity, though, I won’t put this answer into the mouth of the left-winger, since it is blatantly question-begging. Surely the lefty has a better answer. So what is it?)

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Scholastic’s Bookshelf, Part I

In a belated reply to a reader’s request, and because I suspect other readers might find it useful, here is the first in an intermittent series of posts on some recommended reading for those interested in Neo-Scholastic and Thomistic thought. For the most part I will not mention obvious or recent works, but rather out-of-print or otherwise hard to find books, especially those from the period prior to Vatican II when the Neo-Scholastic tradition was at its height. Nor will I attempt to be exhaustive, but will focus on works which are in some way particularly noteworthy or useful. Many of the books I will mention can be acquired fairly cheaply from online booksellers, though some are more expensive. Some have recently been reissued by publishers specializing in reprinting long out of print books, like Wipf and Stock, Kessinger, or TAN Books. A few are available via Google books or have otherwise been posted somewhere online. All of them are worth tracking down.

In this initial post, I will recommend some reference books and other general works which readers new to the Neo-Scholastic tradition will find invaluable in finding their way around its vast conceptual structure and getting accustomed to its sometimes forbidding and alien technical vocabulary. Future posts will provide reading recommendations vis-à-vis specific subject areas like natural theology, ethics, epistemology and metaphysics, philosophical psychology, logic, dogmatic theology, etc.

General reference:

George F. McLean, ed., An Annotated Bibliography of Philosophy in Catholic Thought 1900-1964

Pietro Parente, Dictionary of Dogmatic Theology

Bernard Wuellner, Dictionary of Scholastic Philosophy

Bernard Wuellner, Summary of Scholastic Principles

The McLean volume is an invaluable guide to the Neo-Scholastic philosophical literature of the period prior to Vatican II, essential for those interested in serious research into the system of thought these writers developed and defended. It is divided into subject areas – metaphysics, ethics, natural theology, etc. – and provides useful short descriptions of the contents of most of the books it lists.

The entries in the Parente and Wuellner dictionaries are philosophically and theologically substantive. Wuellner’s Summary is a lengthy and detailed outline of the theses that tend to be held in common by most Neo-Scholastic Thomists in all the main areas of philosophy. While a thorough understanding of the arguments for these various theses requires immersion in the literature, this book provides an invaluable guide to the overall structure of the Thomistic system as most writers in the Neo-Scholastic tradition understand it. It also provides a brief account of those areas with respect to which there is disagreement among Scholastics.

General works on Neo-Scholasticism:

Helen James John, The Thomist Spectrum

Written in the mid-1960s, this book provides a very useful brief account of the various approaches to Thomism prominent up to that time. Particularly useful is the treatment of the differences between Garrigou-Lagrange, Maritain, and Gilson, given that these writers are often mistakenly lumped together by non-Thomists as if they were all saying more or less the same thing (they definitely were not, certainly not on every important issue). Also treated are those approaches to Thomism which emphasize its affinities with Platonism (e.g. Fabro) and “Transcendental Thomism.”

[A very brief treatment of the various approaches to Thomism, but one which pretty much covers all the various schools – and, since more recent, includes some that John's leaves out – can be found at the beginning of Benedict Ashley’s The Way toward Wisdom. Also recent and useful is chapter 1 of Brian Shanley’s The Thomist Tradition. There are of course other recent and more in-depth accounts of the various schools of Thomism. Gerald McCool’s trilogy Nineteenth-Century Scholasticism, From Unity to Pluralism, and The Neo-Thomists is one example, and Fergus Kerr’s After Aquinas is another. These works might be too lengthy and/or idiosyncratic to be helpful to the novice, though they are definitely worth the attention of the more advanced student. (FYI, before long I will be putting up a couple of posts to serve as a brief primer on the various schools of Thomism.)]

Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, Reality: A Synthesis of Thomistic Thought

Cardinal Mercier, ed., A Manual of Modern Scholastic Philosophy (in two volumes)

A. D. Sertillanges, Foundations of Thomistic Philosophy

Daniel J. Sullivan, An Introduction to Philosophy: The Perennial Principles of the Classical Realist Tradition

Charles Baschab, Manual of Neo-Scholastic Philosophy

These works provide general treatments of the Neo-Scholastic system which are more in-depth than what is provided by a work like Wuellner’s Summary, though less in-depth than what one will find in a work on (say) metaphysics or natural theology specifically. Garrigou-Lagrange and Mercier were among the most eminent figures of twentieth-century Neo-Scholasticism, and Sertillanges was significant too. Garrigou-Lagrange’s Reality covers dogmatic theology as well as philosophy. (It has recently been reprinted by Ex Fontibus.) The volumes edited by Mercier (pictured above) contain articles by prominent Neo-Scholastic writers of the early twentieth century (including Mercier himself) on each of the main sub-disciplines of philosophy.

Sullivan’s book is the most elementary of the ones listed, but for that reason it is about as clear and accessible an introduction to philosophy written from an Aristotelian-Thomistic POV as you will find. (It has been kept in print in recent years by TAN Books.)

A more recent work providing an overview of philosophy from an Aristotelian-Thomistic perspective is William A. Wallace, The Elements of Philosophy: A Compendium for Philosophers and Theologians.

Finally, some books that are not quite Neo-Scholastic, but still Aristotelian: John Wild’s Introduction to Realistic Philosophy and Mortimer Adler’s Ten Philosophical Mistakes. Wild is an interesting case – a Harvard philosopher who defended a broadly Aristotelian position before moving in the direction of phenomenology and existentialism in the late 1950s. Adler is well-known, of course, as is the book in question. It is not a general introduction to Aristotelian philosophy and it is elementary, but it is a very useful summary of some of the errors Aristotelian and Thomistic philosophers see in some of the characteristic assumptions made and positions taken by modern philosophers.

(Next in the series: Natural theology)

Monday, July 13, 2009

Latest reviews of TLS

“In his work The Last Superstition, Edward Feser melds philosophic acumen with an acute sense of humor, steadily dismantling the philosophic claims of Dawkins, Hitchens, Dennett, and others… a sharp critique of modern philosophical errors… One hopes that Feser's work will spur further interest in classical Thomistic and Aristotelian metaphysical thought.” Michael O’Halloran, Review of Metaphysics

Every argument atheists raise against belief in God can be dismantled like a cheap watch by [people] who know how to do it. And, as The Last Superstition shows, Edward Feser really knows how to do it… If [atheists] were willing to dispassionately consider the case for theism that Feser builds here, they would come away from reading this book with their confidence profoundly shaken.” Patrick Madrid, Envoy Magazine

Monday, July 6, 2009

Summer reading

Several substantive new posts are in the works, but I’m momentarily preoccupied meeting some looming deadlines. In the meantime, here are some philosophical posts worth checking out: Michael Liccione, my new What’s Wrong with the World co-blogger, on ID theory. Lee Faber on MacIntyre on Scotus. Incompatible novel takes on Hume on causation from Bill Vallicella and James Chastek. (James is responding to my recent post on Hume. I plan to reply to him as soon as I get a chance.)

UPDATE 7/8: Some useful reading recommendations from Lydia McGrew vis-à-vis the historical reliability of the New Testament. The books are mostly older ones, and in theology and philosophy, older usually means better. (In that connection, I plan soon to post a series of Neo-Scholastic reading recommendations, in belated response to a reader’s request made some time back. Stay tuned.)

Friday, July 3, 2009

Conservatism, populism, and snobbery

In honor of the soon-to-be-beatified John Henry Newman, I'm reprinting this post of November 29, 2005 from the late, lamented Right Reason blog, in which the Cardinal is prominently quoted.

Conservatives are accused of all sorts of things, and sometimes the accusations are flatly incompatible. For instance, liberals often allege that conservatives want to do away with government almost entirely, though they also frequently claim that conservatives want to impose a police state in the name of national security or religious fundamentalism. How can both these accusations be true? The contradiction, many liberals would say, is not on their part, but on the part of conservatives. Conservatives, they allege, are inconsistent (unless they are just insincere) in claiming to uphold both small government and national security, both liberty and traditional morality. Some libertarians too would accuse conservatives of being either muddleheaded or insincere, and in particular of being disguised liberals or even socialists, since despite their talk of freedom conservatives typically refuse, either in rhetoric or in practice, to advocate the sort of minimal state preferred by Ayn Rand or Robert Nozick. To a certain kind of libertarian mind, if you favor even a modest social safety net, or airport weapons searches, or the criminalization of heroin, you are on all fours with Clement Attlee, and maybe even Joseph Stalin.

The truth, of course, is that conservatives are neither closet anarchists nor closet totalitarians. Nor are they muddleheaded. Indeed, if anyone is muddleheaded, it is those critics of conservatism who refuse to see that their way of dividing up the territory of possible views in political philosophy is too crude and simple-minded -- who assume, for example, that if you favor limited government, you must therefore also favor legalized abortion, or legalized pornography, or the rejection of all taxation, on pain of inconsistency. In fact, conservatives simply adhere to principles (natural law, Burkean, or whatever) that happen to entail, quite systematically and coherently, a view of the proper scope of state power that rejects both the extreme of statism and the opposite extreme of pure laissez-faire. When concepts like rights, freedom, property and the like are properly understood, they will, from the conservative point of view, be seen to rule out equally both anarchism and socialism, both libertarianism and egalitarian liberalism, and to favor something different from all of them. It might be that conservatives are mistaken, but they aren’t contradicting themselves or being disingenuous simply by virtue of defending a conservative (as opposed to liberal or libertarian) point of view.

Another area where inconsistent accusations are frequently hurled at conservatives is that of culture. Conservative critics of the modern university are often said to be beholden to an outmoded and elitist vision of the canon more suited to the Victorian era than the Age of Hip-Hop, and blind to the merits of incorporating studies of popular culture into the curriculum. In the sphere of religion, those who favor more traditional liturgical forms (e.g. Catholics attached to the Tridentine Mass) are dismissed as insensitive to the need for a more egalitarian spirituality of the sort enshrined in the substitution of the vernacular for Latin and the replacement of Gregorian chant with folk guitars and hand-clapping. At the same time, conservatives are also frequently accused of being the enemies of high culture and the champions of populist vulgarity. After all, aren’t those who vote for conservative parties more likely to attend a NASCAR event than an opera? Don’t conservatives want to cut funding for PBS while giving tax breaks to Wal-Mart?

An irony in this is that such charges are just as plausibly made against the very liberals who so glibly fling them at conservatives. It is liberals, after all, who have promoted the most vulgar of tastes in churches and classrooms – it wasn’t conservatives who gave us “clown Masses” and Porno 101 -- while also heaping contempt on those whose interest in public television goes no farther than Sesame Street, or who much prefer a Big Gulp to even a Beaujolais. The same people who take the most absurd pains to find deep meaning in the thuggish grunts of rappers like Tupac Shakur and Eminem seethe in their hatred for what they imagine to be the pop culture preferences of evangelical Christians, Southerners, and the denizens of trailer parks and shopping malls. Liberals are hardly outdone by conservatives in combining snooty elitism with egalitarian philistinism.

In any event, what we have here is once again a failure to understand that conservatism represents an alternative to the various attitudes it is falsely accused of embodying. Conservatism is neither populist nor snobbish, any more than it is either laissez-faire or statist. It does not believe that the common man is always right, and it does not believe that he is always wrong. While it is suspicious of the fleeting passions of the multitude, it is equally suspicious of those who would dismiss the deepest feelings of the mass of mankind as just so much ignorance and bigotry waiting to be socially engineered out of existence. The reason has to do with conservatism’s distinctive conception of moral and social knowledge, and with its organic view of society. The conservative takes respect for both untutored common sense and learned reflection, and indeed for both the common man and the learned man, to be essential to a well-ordered society.

Conservatism regards tradition as the distillation of the moral and social wisdom of centuries, and as embodying more information about the concrete and complex details of human life than is available to any single human mind or even any single generation. This by no means makes tradition infallible, but it does entail that there is a presumption in its favor, that traditional practices are more likely to serve human interests than anything someone might dream up from the comfort of the faculty lounge or seminar room, and that the burden of proof therefore lies with the moral or social innovator rather than the defender of tradition. (See here for a detailed exposition of one version of this sort of view, and a defense of it against several common misunderstandings.)

Now it is an occupational hazard of intellectuals to overestimate the power of individual human intelligence, and for this reason they are excessively prone to overestimate their ability to improve upon traditional institutions and practices. Non-intellectuals, by contrast, are more likely to have their deepest values shaped by long-standing tradition rather than by sustained reflection. As a result, intellectuals are bound to be more hostile to tradition and non-intellectuals more sympathetic to it, which entails, however seemingly paradoxically, that from the conservative point of view the average person is more likely than the intellectual is to be wise in the ways of the world, at least where morality and other aspects of everyday practical life are concerned. (Hence William F. Buckley’s famous line to the effect that he’d rather be governed by the first hundred names in the Boston phone book than by the faculty of Harvard.)

Of course, the average person can sometimes be seriously wrong, but often this is a consequence of his having been led astray by some demagogic intellectual or pseudo-intellectual: the frustrated socialist agitator Mussolini and the frustrated artist Hitler are two vivid examples, and of course, demagogic communist pseudo-intellectuals are a dime a dozen (witness Lenin, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, Castro, Che Guevara, et al.). Unruly and fleeting emotions stirred up in the face of immediate crises are not where the conservative sees the wisdom of the common man. Rather, it is in those sentiments that remain largely unaltered generation after generation, and through periods of calm as well as periods of emergency, that the average person is far more to be trusted than the intellectual. For these are the attitudes which, by virtue of their harmony with tradition, are most likely to reflect the truth about the human condition.

John Henry Newman had as refined and learned a mind as any, and yet he famously wrote that “I will not shrink from uttering my firm conviction, that it would be a gain to this country, were it vastly more superstitious, more bigoted, more gloomy, more fierce in its religion, than at present it shows itself to be” (and this during the Victorian era, long before our flaccid therapeutic age). Part of what he meant is that the serious fervor and devotion that serious religion has always demanded of the believer if he is to be saved is hard to maintain when one is constantly worried that he might offend the sensibilities of others who believe differently, or if religion is watered down into a thin humanistic social justice ethic that differs little from its secular rivals. But the point has more general application, and is a sober one too, Newman’s colorful language notwithstanding. Even if traditional morality has, as the conservative insists, a rational presumption in its favor, it is also very demanding, and there are always temptations to fudge it wherever possible. It takes real deep-in-the-gut conviction on the part of the mass of mankind if it is generally to be respected, and this entails that it be treated as a sacred and unquestioned obligation rather than a negotiable debating position. If the justification for traditional morality is rationally superior to the justification for its overthrow, its real-world motivation nevertheless must, as a matter of sociological fact, be visceral rather than intellectual. Thus intellectuals, even conservative intellectuals, cannot be trusted to maintain it as faithfully as the common man; indeed, there is even a danger that, if the conservative intellectual too readily endorses his liberal critic’s insistence that a rational case for it must be made, he might inadvertently undermine its force by making it seem to be just one alternative among others. A truly conservative program, then, cannot rest content with the defense of conservative policy on social-scientific and abstract philosophical grounds; it must also be a defense of the epistemological credentials of the “prejudices” of the average person (in the sense of “prejudice” emphasized by Burke, viz. one’s instinctive sense of what is proper and improper, rooted in everyday human experience rather than abstract reason) and thereby of their right to hold the views they do on the basis of such “prejudice.”

At the same time, rough pub dwellers and street sweepers are not the people Newman, or any other sane person, wants writing his philosophy books. Nor, since tradition, and thus the prejudices of the common man, can sometimes be wrong, can they simply be given the last word (even if, to paraphrase J. L. Austin on ordinary language, they are the first word). The learned have their proper place in society too, which sometimes involves correcting the errors of the vulgar -- even if only on the basis of more ultimate premises that the learned share with the vulgar, rather than on the basis of some novel metaphysic and ethic spun from whole cloth. And that the learned, and everyone else, have their place brings us to the other component of the conservative attitude toward culture, the organic conception of society mentioned above. For the conservative, it is not the business of the learned condescendingly to scorn the tastes and attitudes of the multitude, and it is not the business of the multitude ignorantly to despise the subtleties of the learned. Every person plays a necessary function in the body of society, and his tastes and cultural practices will naturally reflect his position in the overall order. The reflections of philosophers and poets give guidance and inspiration to the community, but the common sense of the average person provides ballast, ensuring that the rarefied speculations of intellectuals never range too far from the hard earth of ordinary human experience. Here, as in other areas of human life, the conservative tends to see those in different walks of life as complementing each other rather than competing with each other: men need women, and women need men; the young need the old, and the old need the young; labor needs capital, and capital needs labor; and so forth. As Russell Kirk put it (quoting Marcus Aurelius) “We are made for cooperation, like the hands, like the feet.”

From the conservative point of view, it is pathological to think that vulgar tastes – and especially ones that are not merely vulgar, but positively immoral, as is the case with vast swaths of what passes for popular entertainment today -- ought to be set on a par with refined ones, as if comic books and epic poetry were merely different kinds of “texts” to which a scholar might devote his attention. But it is also folly to suppose that everyone could be made to appreciate literature, fine art, and music if only funding to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting were increased. (Indeed, the two tendencies work in symbiosis: egalitarians pretend that everyone is capable of the most refined learning, and to prove it, they redefine what counts as “refined learning” so that college courses in “rock history” and “hip-hop culture” can help a young “scholar” more easily “earn” a bachelor’s degree.) Action movies and race cars, cheeseburgers and milk shakes have their place, just as much as philosophy and poetry, fine food and fine wine. To scorn the latter is to be a vulgarian; to scorn the former is to be a snob. Things go wrong when either the vulgarian or the snob has the upper hand. They go very badly indeed when vulgarians and snobs share power, as they do in modern Western society, which seems to be ruled jointly by the Rupert Murdochs and NPR bureaucrats of the world. Things go well when both common and refined tastes are afforded their due respect as necessary parts of the overall social order -- that is to say, when the conservative sensibility prevails.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Gordon on Cohen

It is one of the oddities of contemporary academic life that the right-winger often finds more worthy and formidable opponents the farther he looks to the left. During the last half-century or so, mainstream academic liberal philosophers of the Rawls or Dworkin stripe largely ignored the views of writers like Hayek, Oakeshott, and Scruton. Nozick got attention, of course, but (a) it was often tinged with a hostility such liberals would never display toward other opponents, (b) it treated Nozick as if he were an eccentricity rather than a representative of a serious tradition of political thought, and (c) it was usually superficial – certainly Rawls himself never replied to Nozick with the depth and seriousness the latter’s critique merited.

In fairness, this has changed a little in recent years as at least some academic liberal philosophers have been willing more seriously to engage the arguments of libertarians and of social conservatives like John Finnis and Robert P. George. It was also, I think, more an American phenomenon than a British one, though that may be because the center of political gravity is in Britain further to the left than it is in the U.S. In any event, during the period in question one could often find the most serious responses to thinkers like Hayek and Nozick coming from socialists rather than liberals. The work of G. A. Cohen is exemplary in this regard. Cohen is perhaps the most formidable socialist thinker writing today. His book Self-Ownership, Freedom, and Equality is among the best things ever written on Nozick, probing Nozick’s position in depth – and defending it from more superficial critiques – while trying to find some way of avoiding his inegalitarian conclusions. If your views are anything like mine, you will find Cohen’s conclusions completely unacceptable. But you will also find that his arguments and analysis are fascinating indeed and repay careful study.

The esteemed David Gordon reviews Cohen’s latest book Rescuing Justice and Equality, at length, here. Like much of Cohen’s recent work, the book is a probing critique of mainstream egalitarian liberalism from a position further to the left. Cohen is the guilty conscience of academic egalitarianism, always challenging his colleagues to be more consistently egalitarian. He is certainly more interesting than Rawls ever was. Rawls is at bottom a mere liberal apologist, and not a good one either, considering that he never seriously considers the most formidable challenges to his basic liberal assumptions. Cohen is a serious critical analyst of his own deepest commitments. His egalitarianism is unflinching, but he at least tries to meet the other side at its strongest point.