Sunday, January 31, 2010

Plotinus contra modernity

Plotinus’ thought is sublime. We find in it not only an important statement of the classical theistic position that all reality derives from an absolutely simple first cause, but also the notion that our fulfillment lay in our return to that cause. (The theme of God as our First Cause and Last End, He from Whom the world derives and to Whom it will return, would later go on to provide the structure for Aquinas’s Summa Theologiae.) As Fr. Copleston has said, “from the point of view of Christianity itself, Neo-Platonism had an important function to fulfil, that of contributing to the intellectual statement of the Revealed Religion, and so the convinced Christian cannot but look with sympathy, and a certain reverence, on the figure of Plotinus, to whom the greatest of the Latin Fathers (and so the Universal Church) owed no inconsiderable debt.” (A History of Philosophy, volume I)

Nor is it in metaphysics alone that we can find inspiration in him. There is also his moral vision. Consider this beautiful passage from the first tractate of the Fifth Ennead (MacKenna translation):

What can it be that has brought the souls to forget the father, God, and, though members of the Divine and entirely of that world, to ignore at once themselves and It?

The evil that has overtaken them has its source in self-will, in the entry into the sphere of process, and in the primal differentiation with the desire for self-ownership. They conceived a pleasure in this freedom and largely indulged their own motion; thus they were hurried down the wrong path, and in the end, drifting further and further, they came to lose even the thought of their origin in the Divine. A child wrenched young from home and brought up during many years at a distance will fail in knowledge of its father and of itself: the souls, in the same way, no longer discern either the divinity or their own nature; ignorance of their rank brings self-depreciation; they misplace their respect, honouring everything more than themselves; all their awe and admiration is for the alien, and, clinging to this, they have broken apart, as far as a soul may, and they make light of what they have deserted; their regard for the mundane and their disregard of themselves bring about their utter ignoring of the divine.

Admiring pursuit of the external is a confession of inferiority; and nothing thus holding itself inferior to things that rise and perish, nothing counting itself less honourable and less enduring than all else it admires could ever form any notion of either the nature or the power of God.

We see from these words that Plotinus would condemn not only the naturalism that is the ruling ideology of our age, but also the liberalism that is its moral concomitant. It is “self-will” and “the desire for self-ownership” that leads the soul to deny its true source in the divine. (Libertarians take note.) The O’Brien translation has “desiring to be independent” in place of “self-ownership,” and renders the next sentence: “Once having tasted the pleasures of independence, they use their freedom to go in a direction that leads away from their origin.” We are by nature oriented to the divine; that alone can fulfill us. When, as moderns are prone to do, we make an idol of freedom and “reserve the right” to pursue some other good as if it were highest, we implicitly deny our nature. The resulting madness leads us “further and further” from the divine to the point of what Plotinus calls “self-depreciation” and the pursuit of what is “inferior” to the soul – sensual pleasure, money, and worldly power. The sequel to thus living contrary to reason, like mere animals, cannot fail to be a tendency to sentimentalize the non-human world. “Honouring everything more than themselves; all their awe and admiration is for the alien” – Plotinus might as well have been describing the contemporary environmentalist or animal rights activist. That the liberal-cum-naturalist avant-garde now effectively denies reason itself (in the name of reason!) would have surprised Plotinus not at all.

Plotinus rises up to condemn this modernist disease. We must be grateful to him for that. Not that his work was without error. His conceptions of both God and the soul need to be corrected in an Aristotelian-Thomistic direction (or so we A-T types would contend). His ethics, like that of all Platonists, is excessively rigorist because of its failure to see that the soul is the form of the body, and thus that man is an essentially embodied creature. For the Platonist, “each pleasure and pain is a sort of nail which nails and rivets the soul to the body,” as the Phaedo memorably puts it. But from the A-T perspective – though itself too austere from the point of view of the modern liberal – this is a touch melodramatic. Pleasure must always be subordinated to intellect, and to the knowledge of God which is our natural end, but it has its place in a normal human life. For A-T, you can enjoy your top sirloin, martini, and tobacco, then retire to the bedchamber with the wife, all in good conscience. Some asceticism now and then is a good thing for everyone. And an entire life of asceticism is indeed a higher form of existence for those called to sacrifice lower goods in the interests of a single-minded pursuit of the highest one. But the lower goods remain goods, and those who do not have the calling in question are guilty of no moral failing for pursuing them in moderation.

All the same, in the age of MTV, pot clinics, internet pornography, and “supersizing,” Plotinus’ stern ethos is a welcome corrective. Compared to the war between the ancients and the moderns, the dispute between Platonists, Aristotelians, and Thomists and other Scholastics is a mere family squabble.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

“Go to Thomas!”

Ite ad Thomam!” the popes have taught us; “Go to Thomas!” Today is the feast day of St. Thomas Aquinas. As you sip your Aquinas in celebration, you’ll want something to read. Naturally, you’ll include some choice selections from the Summa Theologiae or the Summa Contra Gentiles. Then you might take a look at Michael Augros’s article responding to “Ten Objections to the Prima Via. Or dip into Ralph McInerny’s Ethica Thomistica: The Moral Philosophy of Thomas Aquinas. Or ponder Jacques Maritain’s useful summary (from his book St. Thomas Aquinas) of papal statements on the authority Aquinas’s teaching has within the Catholic Church. Or read something else if you must. Don’t forget to begin with St. Thomas’s student’s prayer. Later, sing one or another of his beautiful Eucharistic hymns. Contemplate his virtues. Indulge in a little triumphalism. And as you say a bedtime prayer to the Angelic Doctor himself, don’t forget to ask his intercession on behalf of philosophers and theologians. Believe me, we need it.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Plotinus on divine simplicity, Part III

We have now examined Plotinus’ arguments for the One and for Intellect and Soul. Plotinus’ doctrine of three divine “hypostases” is famously reminiscent of the Christian doctrine of the Trinity. What is the relationship between the doctrines? I don’t mean “What is the historical relationship between them?” Both before and after Plotinus’ time, Christian theologians have found metaphysical concepts derived from Greek philosophy useful in articulating the doctrine of the Trinity, and have modified those concepts in various ways as they have applied them. But tracing this complex history is not to the present point. What I am asking is rather: What is the logical relationship between Plotinus’ doctrine and Trinitarianism – where each is considered ahistorically, as a “finished product”?

Certainly they are not the same doctrine. For one thing, Plotinus was, of course, a pagan rather than a Christian. (His student Porphyry was notoriously hostile to Christianity.) His position purports to be founded on purely philosophical arguments, whereas the Trinity is, according to Christian doctrine, something accessible only through divine revelation. Indeed, the Trinity is said to be a mystery – not in the sense that it is in itself in any way contrary to reason, but rather in the sense that the unaided human intellect is too limited either to arrive at it on its own or fully to understand it even once it has been divinely revealed. For another thing, many of the details of Plotinus’ conception of the three hypostases and their relations are simply incompatible with what the doctrine of the Trinity says about the three divine Persons. For example, the relationship between Plotinus’ hypostases is evidently subordinationist, whereas the Persons of the Trinity are equal in divinity.

All the same, mightn’t one argue that doctrines like that of Plotinus are at least pointers to the Trinity? Not that his views pointed historically to it – Trinitarianism was well established before Plotinus, even though the crucial formulation associated with the Council of Nicea would not be arrived until over half a century after his death. The suggestion on the table is rather that, considered as a piece of natural theology, Plotinus’ position points philosophically to something like the Trinity. The idea would be this: The human intellect cannot arrive at the doctrine of the Trinity per se, but it can discover grounds for suspecting that there must in some way be even more to the “personal” aspect of the divine nature than God’s having intellect and will – like the congenitally blind man who might suspect even apart from the testimony of the sighted that there is more to the physical world than what his four working senses tell him, even if he cannot in principle grasp what it is.

Nor need such a judgment be based merely on the fact that Plotinus posits exactly three divine hypostases. Consider Aquinas’s account of the Trinity in Summa Theologiae Part I, Questions 27-43. (Brian Davies provides a useful summary of Aquinas’s position in The Thought of Thomas Aquinas.) Aquinas compares the Father’s begetting of the Son to the intellect’s forming a concept of itself; and he compares the proceeding of the Holy Spirit to the willing or loving of this concept that the intellect knows. As we have seen, intellect and the directedness toward an object that love or desire manifest provided Plotinus with ways of characterizing the second and third of his hypostases.

What is missing from Plotinus’ account to prevent it from dovetailing more completely with the doctrine of the Trinity – or so this line of thought we are considering might continue, anyway – is Aquinas’s doctrine of analogy. It is because Plotinus is so emphatic about the absolute simplicity of the One that he must make of Intellect and Soul derivative hypostases rather than anything like distinct Persons in one divine substance. For he refuses to make any distinctions at all within the One itself. And yet Plotinus also affirms that the Forms are in the One, even if only “virtually”; and they must be there if the One is to explain the rest of the world, for a cause cannot give what it does not in some sense have to give. Hence Intellect and Soul are also there virtually. But if they are there even virtually, they are there. The doctrine of analogy, which informs Aquinas’s understanding of divine simplicity, can help us understand how this can be so. For Aquinas, there is in God something analogous to power in us and something analogous to knowledge in us; but where in us power and knowledge are distinct, in God they are the same thing, and it is precisely the fact that we are attributing power and knowledge to God in an analogous rather than a univocal sense that makes this intelligible. Similarly, perhaps we could say that what exist in a distinct way outside the One – the Forms, but also (more to the present point) Intellect and Soul – exist within the One as one, different only in our (analogous) descriptions of them, but not different in themselves. And in that way (or so it might seem) we can think of One, Intellect, and Soul as united in a way reminiscent of the relationship between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as three Persons in one divine substance.

Does this proposed line of thought show, then, that Plotinus’ doctrine is a philosophical “pointer” to the doctrine of the Trinity? Not so fast. For one thing, any attempt to reconcile Plotinus with Aquinas via the doctrine of analogy can only be taken so far. It is true that the doctrine of analogy shows how we can predicate power, knowledge, goodness, etc. of God in a manner consistent with divine simplicity. But we cannot say that Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are identical in the way we can say that God’s power, knowledge, and goodness are identical, on pain of confounding the divine Persons and lapsing into heresy. Hence, whatever we might get by tucking up Intellect and Soul together with the One via the doctrine of analogy, it isn’t the Trinity.

For another thing, even if it is arguable that Plotinus’ doctrine nevertheless “points” to the Trinity in some vague way, this is something the Trinitarian himself would have to insist could not possibly be recognized except “after the fact.” That is to say, there can be no question of some philosopher who has no familiarity with Christian teaching on the Trinity independently discovering it, or even discovering something that “points” to it in anything but the vaguest way. For if that were possible, the Trinity wouldn’t be a mystery, wouldn’t be something we couldn’t possibly know of apart from divine revelation – it would instead be just one more piece of natural theology among others.

Skeptics might regard this emphasis on mystery as a shameless ploy to ward off potential criticism, but in fact it is, when properly understood, quite clearly the opposite of that. Trinitarian theologians insist that the doctrine is not contrary to reason – that it is perfectly coherent, and that every skeptical attempt to prove otherwise accordingly must be, and can be, answered. They do not claim that attempts to demonstrate the doctrine’s incoherence can legitimately be waved away by shouting “mystery!” Given this apologetic interest, it might seem they would welcome any purported purely philosophical demonstration of the Trinity that removes all mystery, as a means of shutting the skeptics up for good. But in fact they are hostile to such attempts, and Trinitarian orthodoxy requires them to be. The Trinitarian position is, as I have said, that the doctrine is in itself perfectly in harmony with reason but also that our intellects are too limited to grasp it. This entails both an insistence on defending the doctrine in a negative way, by rebutting attempted refutations, and an insistence that positive purely philosophical demonstrations of its truth are impossible.

Would-be scoffers should keep in mind that naturalists like Colin McGinn have taken a position similar to this as a way of staving off dualist objections, claiming that there is a purely naturalistic explanation of consciousness but that our minds are constitutionally incapable of understanding that explanation. They’ve even labeled this view “mysterianism.” Only someone who assumes that, if there really is a God, then the divine nature simply must be fully comprehensible to us, can object in principle to the parallel view defended by the Trinitarian. And why would anyone make such a foolish and ungrounded assumption?

So, Plotinus’ doctrine of the three hypostases is neither the same as the doctrine of the Trinity, nor something that bears anything but a very general analogy to it. With the doctrine of the Trinity already in hand, we can indeed see in Plotinus some interesting parallels, and even make use of them in spelling out Trinitarianism. But we could never have gotten to the Trinity from Plotinus, or from any other system of purely natural theology. If we are to know anything at all about it, it can only be by divine revelation.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

“Tried to Feser. Didn’t faze her!”

Our old pal Brian Leiter relays the following Philosophical Lexicon-style definition, suggested to him by a reader:

Feser (v) – to be in possession of the unique interpretation of a classic argument that makes it not only work (pace everyone else's views) but makes it decisive.

Example: "Listen, dude, you can keep talking about how the ontological argument ‘doesn't work’ – but I've Fesered it."

Not really fair, and certainly not meant to be flattering. But, let’s face it, pretty funny.

Hayek and Keynes bust a rhyme

Yo, check it. (HT: Frank Beckwith)

Friday, January 22, 2010

Twilight of the Mad Men

In his recent book 1959: The Year Everything Changed, Fred Kaplan provides a useful and entertaining account of the political, cultural, moral, and technological transformations that paved the way for the revolutions of the Sixties. Here is my review of the book, for the online edition of City Journal.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Plotinus on divine simplicity, Part II

We’ve seen how Plotinus argues for the existence of God (or “the One”), and how his conception of God includes something like the doctrine of divine simplicity. But we also noted that for Plotinus, the One is but one of three divine “hypostases,” the other two – Intellect and Soul – being derivative from the One. Let’s look now at how he derives these two further hypostases (once again following Lloyd Gerson’s helpful lead).

First, as a Platonist, Plotinus is committed to the existence of the Forms, for the usual sorts of reasons. (See chapter 2 of The Last Superstition for a refresher course on Platonism. Though the book ultimately opts for Scholastic realism rather than Platonic realism, I try to make it clear why Platonism is intellectually attractive.) Given the Forms’ existence, Plotinus appears to take the following line of reasoning to demonstrate the existence of his second divine hypostasis:

1. The Forms constitute a complex system of eternal necessary truths.

2. This system can exist only virtually in the One, not actually, since the One is not complex but absolutely simple.

3. So there must be a separate, derivative hypostasis to ground the actuality of these truths.

4. But eternal truths cannot exist except as contemplated by an eternal knower.

5. So this derivative hypostasis must be an Intellect.

Once again, let’s comment on the argument step by step (and once again, not everything I have to say by way of commentary should be attributed either to Plotinus or Gerson). Things are what they are because they instantiate certain Forms or universals. This individual triangle and that one are what they are because they instantiate triangularity, this individual cat and that one are what they are because they instantiate catness, and so forth. The Forms are, accordingly, essential to any complete explanation of the world. They are eternal and necessary – this or that triangle comes and goes, but triangularity does not and cannot. They are also logically interrelated in a way that entails various eternal and necessary truths – anything instantiating triangularity necessarily also instantiates trilaterality, anything instantiating threeness necessarily also instantiates oddness, and so forth.

That gives us step (1) of the argument. And the eternity and necessity of the Forms, together with their status as (part of) the ultimate explanation of things, would seem to entail their divinity. Since the One is the divine source of all, the Forms must exist in the One. And yet, as step (2) tells us, since the system of Forms exhibits a kind of complexity, it cannot exist “actually” in the One, which is absolutely simple, but only “virtually.” (Think of the way fire exists “virtually” in a match in a way it does not exist even virtually in a toothpick, since the former has an inherent power to generate fire that the latter does not. The fire exists “actually” only when the match is struck.)

At the same time, the Forms must exist “actually” if they are to explain anything. Hence, step (3) concludes, there must be a second-most fundamental explanatory principle of all reality after the One, in which the Forms are actualized – divine (since it is eternal, necessary, and part of the ultimate explanation of the world) but derived from the One. What is the nature of this “hypostasis” (to use the traditional Neo-Platonic language)? Anticipating a line of thought that would later become associated with St. Augustine, Plotinus argues that though eternal truths exist independent of the material world and independent of any finite mind (this much being familiar from Plato), they must nevertheless exist only as contemplated by some mind, namely an infinite mind (step (4), a move that arguably goes beyond Plato and makes Plotinus’ position a “Neo-” Platonism, though Plotinus himself didn’t see it that way). And thus we reach the conclusion that the second hypostasis must be thought of as a kind of divine Intellect.

But we are, in Plotinus’ view, still short of a complete account of the ultimate causes of the world. This brings us to his argument for Soul, the third of the three hypostases, which can be summarized as follows:

1. Intellect, since it contains the Forms, explains why things have the natures they have.

2. But the objects of the Intellect are not distinct from the Intellect itself.

3. And some things desire objects outside themselves (e.g. a plant “desires” to grow and flourish).

4. So Intellect cannot explain these desires.

5. So a third hypostasis is needed to explain them, namely Soul.

This argument might seem even more difficult to understand than the other two we’ve considered, but I think if we unpack it carefully we can see that it is not all that mysterious, at least given certain key metaphysical assumptions held in common by many ancient philosophers. Keep in mind that the point of Plotinus’ theory of the three hypostases is to show what must be the case if the world we know is to exist at all. It is to provide an ultimate explanation. The One is the ultimate explanation of the being or existence of things. Intellect is the explanation of their natures. But the world of our experience has, we might say, both its static and its dynamic aspects. The nature of a cat is what it is, unchangingly. As step (1) reminds us, Intellect is the explanation of why it has that nature. But as a living thing, a cat also goes through stages of development. It doesn’t exhibit every aspect of its “catness” all at once. In general, living things exist in a way that involves the gradual realization of various ends. Plants “desire” or “seek” to grow and flourish, acorns “aim” to become oaks, and so forth. Most living things do not consciously seek to realize such ends, of course. What we have here is best understood along the lines of Aristotle’s conception of final causality, “goal-directedness” in nature that is for the most part entirely unconscious and unthinking.

This “dynamic” side of the natural order is something Intellect does not explain. The reason is that goal-directedness or final causality involves one thing being “directed toward” something outside itself, and there is nothing like that in Intellect. As I have noted in several earlier posts (e.g. here and here), for ancient and medieval philosophers, thought does not involve the intellect’s “representing” the world outside it, but rather a kind of identity of the intellect with the nature of the thing it knows. This is why step (2) tells us that (the divine) Intellect is not distinct from the Forms it knows; in knowing a Form it does not “point to” something beyond itself, but is rather, in a sense, identical with the Form. (Again, see the earlier posts just linked to for more on this conception of thought.) Since there is no “pointing beyond itself” in Intellect, step (4) concludes that Intellect cannot account for those aspects of the natural world (noted in step (3)) that do involve a thing’s “pointing beyond itself” – that involve “desire,” goal-directedness, final causality. (Plotinus focuses on living things, but to the extent that final causality, properly understood, pervades the natural order in the ways discussed in many previous posts, all of material reality would seem to require such explanation for the same reason living things do.) There must, then, be a third-most fundamental explanatory principle of all reality after the One and Intellect, one which accounts for this “directedness” of things towards certain ends outside them, and this is what Plotinus means by Soul.

It will not have escaped the reader’s notice that Plotinus’ three divine hypostases – the One, Intellect, and Soul – are at least vaguely reminiscent of the three divine Persons of the Christian doctrine of the Trinity. Is the parallel more than superficial? I’ll address this question in a third and final post on Plotinus and divine simplicity.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Plotinus on divine simplicity, Part I

We have discussed Neo-Platonism. We have discussed divine simplicity. Let’s combine the themes. Lloyd Gerson, in his fine book Plotinus and elsewhere, has proposed a reconstruction of Plotinus’s argument for “the One” – one of Plotinus’ designations for God – which if successful establishes as directly as any argument can that to show that there is a God just is to show that there is something simple in the relevant sense. Here is my outline of Gerson’s reconstruction:

1. There must be a first principle of all if there is to be an explanation of why the world exists.

2. If the first principle of all were composed of parts, then those parts would be ontologically prior to it.

3. But in that case it would not be the first principle of all.

4. So the first principle is not composed of parts, but is absolutely simple.

5. If there were a distinction between what the first principle is and the fact that it is, then there could be more than one first principle.

6. But in order for there to be more than one, there would have to be some attribute that distinguished them.

7. But since a first principle is absolutely simple, there can be no such attribute.

8. So there cannot be more than one first principle.

9. So there is no distinction in the first principle between what it is and the fact that it is.

10. So the first principle is not only absolutely simple but utterly unique: the One

Let’s walk through the argument step by step. (The comments that follow in some cases go beyond what Gerson himself says.) What is meant by a “first principle” in step (1) is, essentially, a bottom level explanation of the world, something that explains everything else without needing an explanation itself. Accordingly, this premise is at least implicitly accepted by the atheist no less than by the theist, at least insofar as the atheist regards scientific explanations as terminating in a most fundamental level of physical laws that determine all the rest – whether this takes the form of a “Theory of everything” or instead a conjunction of several physical theories left unreduced to some such single theory. The dispute between Plotinus and the atheist, then, would not be over the existence of a “first principle,” but rather over its character. And Plotinus wants to show in the rest of the argument that the first principle of all would have to be simple in (something like) the sense of “simplicity” enshrined in the doctrine of divine simplicity.

The “parts” referred to in step (2), accordingly, are parts of any sort, whether material or metaphysical. The idea here is that if a thing is composed of parts, then the parts are more fundamental than it is. Moreover, those parts would need to be combined in order for the thing to exist. (This is true even if the thing has always existed – for there would in that case still have to be something that accounts for why the parts have always been conjoined.) A purported “first principle” with parts just wouldn’t be a bottom level explanation or first principle at all, then – it would in that case need explanation itself.

With step (4), then, we arrive already at the simplicity of the first principle of all. But when Plotinus refers to this principle as “the One,” he does not mean merely that it has no parts but also that it is utterly unique – that the sort of theism his argument leads us to is necessarily a monotheism. That is part of what the next stage of the argument seeks to establish.

It also seeks to establish an aspect of the doctrine of divine simplicity that is usually thought to be more distinctive of later, Scholastic philosophy. The distinction in step (5) between what a thing is and that it is is, as Gerson says, an anticipation of the famous medieval distinction between essence and existence. In things whose essence and existence are distinct – which, for Aquinas, is everything other than God – the essence entails a general category under which distinct instances might fall. There is, for example, the essence human being, under which Socrates and Obama both fall as particular instances, each with its own “act of existing.” (See chapter 2 of Aquinas for the rundown.) Similarly, if the essence of the first principle of all were distinct from its existence, there might be this “first principle of all” with its act of existing, that “first principle of all” with its own act of existing, and so forth.

But for that to be possible, there would, step (6) tells us, have to be some attribute that one “first principle of all” had that the other lacked. And that, Plotinus holds, makes no sense. For then it would be what they did not differ with respect to – what they had in common – that would be the true first principle of all, since it would be that which ultimately makes each of them the kind of thing it is. That is to say, one “first principle of all” and a second “first principle of all” would each be what it is only because each instantiates the same essence; and in that case it would be the common essence itself, and neither of the individual instances, which (as the explanation of these instances) would be the true first principle. Moreover, we would have in this case a distinction between a first principle itself and its attributes, which conflicts with the simplicity arrived at in (4). Hence there can be no such attribute (step (7)), and thus no way in principle to distinguish one first principle of all from another (step (8)), and thus no difference between the essence of a first principle and its existence (step (9)). The first principle of all is thus “simple” or without any parts in the strongest possible sense.

Actually, an essence/existence distinction would seem directly to violate (4), making the reasoning from (6)-(9) redundant; but as Gerson interprets him, Plotinus seems to argue in this manner anyway. In any event, if essence and existence are identical in the first principle of all – if the first principle isn’t a being among others in a general category but rather just is subsistent being or existence itself (ipsum esse subsistens, as Aquinas would later put it) – then we have something approaching the doctrine of divine simplicity as it would come to be understood in the classical theistic tradition.

We don’t yet quite have classical theism per se, however; for the One is, of course, but one of three divine “hypostases” in Plotinus’ view, even if the most fundamental. The remaining two are Intellect and Soul, and we will examine what Plotinus has to say about them in part II.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

“I think we're on the verge of a major philosophical shift in biology”

I have long complained that too many partisans in the debate between Darwinism and Intelligent Design theory do not realize that the recognition of teleological processes in nature does not necessarily hinge on whether one is willing to accept the existence of a “designer.” That may appear to be the case if one assumes William Paley’s conception of teleology, but not if one takes instead an Aristotelian approach to teleology. And attacks on the former conception do not necessarily have force against the latter conception.

To be sure, we Thomists do hold that teleology provides the basis for an argument for God’s existence, viz. Aquinas’s Fifth Way. But that argument is very different from Paley’s, and acknowledges – with Aristotle and against Paley and his successors – that the existence of teleology in nature does not directly entail an ordering intelligence. That requires further argumentation. (As the analytical Thomist Christopher Martin has noted, modern philosophers tend to assume that getting from natural teleology to God is easy, but establishing that there really is such a thing as teleology in nature in the first place is hard – whereas Aquinas’s view was that the existence of natural teleology was obvious, and the real philosophical work comes in showing that such teleology really requires an explanation in terms of God, as Aristotle thought it did not. See my book Aquinas for my most extended treatment of this issue.)

The philosopher of biology Andre Ariew is one contemporary thinker outside the Aristotelian-Thomistic orbit who has noted the difference between Paley’s understanding of teleology and Aristotle’s, and acknowledged that Darwinian criticisms of Paley do not necessarily show that there is no such thing as teleology in the Aristotelian sense. Another is physiologist J. Scott Turner, whose recent book The Tinkerer’s Accomplice: How Design Emerges From Life Itself argues for the indispensability of the notion of unconscious “intentionality” in understanding certain biological phenomena.

Our friend John Farrell has just posted an interesting Q and A between himself and Turner over at his blog, wherein Turner expresses the view that “we’re on the verge of a major philosophical shift in biology.” Check it out, then go buy the book.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Fact or opinion?

A reader writes in to ask:

Please could you elucidate the distinction between a fact and an opinion? I am a secondary school English teacher and there is a lot of rubbish written on this part of the curriculum that would lead to such absurdities as, for example, the atomic weight of sodium is a fact, but the proposition 'raping babies is wrong' is merely an opinion.

Good question. The manner in which “fact” is commonly pitted against “opinion” seems to rest on multiple confusions. In particular, it seems to rest, in part and in several ways, on a failure to take note of the distinction between metaphysical questions and epistemological questions. It also seems to rest in part on a rather crude and dogmatic application of the so-called “fact/value distinction” – a distinction that is, where ethics is concerned, dubious in any event. Finally, it often seems to rest as well on a failure to distinguish science from scientism.

Let’s walk through this. When people say that such-and-such a claim about sodium (for example) is a “fact,” it seems pretty clear that part of what they mean is that it is objectively true that sodium is that way. That is to say, that sodium has such-and-such chemical properties is a state of affairs that holds completely independently from human convention or subjective tastes. It seems that another part of what they mean, though, is that this objective truth about sodium has been discovered by means of unimpeachable evidence, airtight scientific arguments, and so forth. These two claims are of logically distinct types. The first is a claim about the way the world is – call it a metaphysical claim – while the second is a claim about how we know about the way the world is – call it an epistemological claim. And this difference entails a corresponding difference between two different senses of the word “fact”:

Fact (1): an objective state of affairs

Fact (2): a state of affairs known via conclusive arguments, airtight evidence, etc.

In the same way, when people say that such-and-such is “a matter of opinion,” it seems clear that what they mean, in part, is that it concerns something that is not known via conclusive arguments based on airtight evidence, etc. but is at best believed in on the basis of controversial arguments. But it seems that they also at least sometimes mean that it not a claim that could be objectively true in any event – that its truth could only ever be a matter of convention or subjective taste. Here too we have claims of two logically different types, where the first is an epistemological claim and the second a metaphysical one. And as with “fact,” we need therefore to distinguish between two senses of the expression “matter of opinion”:

Matter of opinion (1): a state of affairs determined entirely by human convention or taste, about which no objective claims can be made

Matter of opinion (2): a state of affairs not known via conclusive arguments, unimpeachable evidence, etc., but at best believed in on the basis of controversial arguments

Now part of the problem with most “fact versus opinion” talk is that the people who engage in it do not make these distinctions. One result of this is that they fallaciously assume that if something is a matter of controversy, then there must be no objective fact of the matter about it – that is to say, that if it is a Matter of opinion (2) then it must therefore be a Matter of opinion (1) and therefore must not be a Fact (1). That this is muddleheaded should be obvious from the following example. The existence of Pluto is a “fact” in both of the senses we have distinguished. But though it was always a Fact (1), it was not always a Fact (2), for Pluto’s existence was of course not known for most of human history. More to the present point, during the period in which there was debate over what the relevant observations really showed, the existence of Pluto, though still (as it turns out) a Fact (1), was not a Fact (2) but only a Matter of opinion (2). In general, it is perfectly possible for something to be a “fact” in the first sense but not in the second sense, and therefore perfectly possible for it to be a “fact” in the first sense and at the same time a “matter of opinion,” in the second sense of that expression. It is also, for that matter, possible for something to be a Matter of opinion (1) but a Fact (2). For example, that the speed limit on most highways in California is 65 MPH is a matter of human convention, and that my favorite Scotch is Laphroaig is a matter of taste. But someone could easily acquire airtight evidence that these things are so.

So, that is one problem with most talk about fact versus opinion – it fails to make these crucial distinctions between metaphysical vs. epistemological senses of the relevant terms. But there are other problems too. Precisely because people fallaciously infer from something’s being a matter of controversy to the conclusion that there must be no objective truth about it, they tend to fall for a rather crude version of the “fact/value distinction.” They conclude that, since people disagree about morality, morality must be entirely subjective, so that even judgments like “Raping babies is wrong” must be true only as a matter of taste or convention. We all agree about “facts” but don’t all agree about morality, therefore (so the “reasoning” goes) morality must be a matter of mere “opinion” rather than “fact.” Once we make the distinctions noted above, the fallaciousness of this “reasoning” becomes obvious. And as I show in my essay on classical natural law theory and property rights (to which I linked recently), there is ample reason to reject the fact/value distinction in any case.

Finally, as the example my reader gives suggests, there also seems to be a tendency to think that what is “factual” is what can be established by means of empirical science, so that what cannot be established in that way must be merely a “matter of opinion.” As we have seen in my recent posts on naturalism, Rosenberg, Churchland, etc., the scientism implicit in this tendency is difficult to justify even when endorsed by professional philosophers. In the thinking of the average non-professional who casually pits scientific “fact” against non-scientific “opinion,” it is nothing more than a prejudice picked up from the surrounding culture. Certainly it embodies no actual rational basis for rejecting the possibility that solid philosophical arguments can rationally justify moral, aesthetic, and theological claims – thus showing such claims to be entirely “factual” in both senses of the term even if one agrees that they are not the sorts of claims which could be established on empirical scientific grounds.

In summary, then, there seem to be four errors underlying the common tendency to pit fact against opinion, to identify the former with science, and to relegate moral judgments and the like to the latter category. First, it fails to distinguish the relevant two senses of “fact.” Second, it fails to distinguish the two relevant senses of “opinion.” Third, it unjustifiably assimilates moral and other value judgments to “matters of opinion” in the first sense we distinguished. And fourth, it unjustifiably assimilates “facts” in both senses of the term to scientific facts. When we clear up all these errors, we can see that a great deal of what is said in the name of fact versus opinion is, as my reader puts it, “rubbish.”

Friday, January 8, 2010

Great moments in New Atheist hypocrisy, Part 2,526

In his 1993 review of John Searle’s The Rediscovery of the Mind, Daniel Dennett complains about Searle’s condescending attitude toward cognitive science:

Attacking such a well-fortified tower of prevailing wisdom is not a job for the faint-hearted, but Searle has never lacked for confidence in the clarity and truth of his own vision. Indeed, his supreme self-confidence is the one fixed point that emerges from the shifting interpretations of his intentions that are suggested by what he has written, as we shall see.

People are not, in general, daft. This obvious fact gives Searle pause. He frequently expresses his astonishment that the other side could endorse such monumentally silly doctrines, but that is just what his analyses tell him, so he calls them as he sees them. "If I am right, we have been making some stunning mistakes." (p.246) He used to stop there, but in this book there has been a subtle but important change in his meta-opinion: "How is it that so many philosophers and cognitive scientists can say so many things that, to me at least [my emphasis], seem obviously false?" (p.3) Searle may find it a bizarre sociological fact that his common sense is not everybody's, but now he bows to that fact and thus accepts the burden of proof (however misplaced in the eyes of eternity) of showing that his "obvious facts" are so much as true. This is progress.

A “supreme self-confidence” that condescendingly treats serious thinkers as “daft” and their views as “monumentally silly” and “obviously false” – why, one would almost think Dennett was describing the author of Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon!

In fairness, though, there are some crucial differences between Searle and Dennett. Searle knows what he is talking about when he criticizes cognitive science. Dennett demonstrably does not know what he is talking about when he criticizes the traditional arguments for the existence of God. By Dennett’s own account, Searle has made “progress” by providing a book-length argument in defense of his objections to cognitive science. Dennett, by contrast, never progresses beyond a couple of pages of sophomoric objections aimed at straw men. Also, Searle’s funnier.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

The ethics of property

My article “Classical Natural Law Theory, Property Rights, and Taxation” has just appeared in the Winter 2010 issue of Social Philosophy and Policy. It is apparently available online for free, in both PDF format and HTML (follow the links from the table of contents). You will find in it a fairly detailed exposition of classical natural law theory and its underlying metaphysics, and an account of how certain natural rights (and certain limits on those rights) follow from natural law, of how a right to private property in particular follows from it, and of what this entails vis-à-vis taxation and related issues. This is the most up-to-date and complete statement of my current position on these topics, and supersedes my earlier writings on property and taxation. As you will see, though I have repudiated the libertarian position of some of my early publications, I am still utterly opposed to socialism, social democracy, and egalitarian liberalism. The article aims to spell out what a genuinely conservative approach to property and taxation should look like.

Monday, January 4, 2010

The interaction problem, Part III

In a couple of previous posts (here and here) we have examined the famous “interaction problem” facing Cartesian dualism and its origins in the impoverished conception of causation the early modern philosophers put in place of the Aristotelian-Scholastic conception. But as Bill Vallicella rightly notes, whatever we think of the interaction problem and of Cartesian dualism’s ability to deal with it, it cannot be regarded as a reason for preferring materialism to dualism. For materialism faces an interaction problem of its own.
Part of the problem is that even if we identify mental events and physical events, mental properties seem to have no causal relevance. Suppose a sensation of pain is identical with such-and-such a neural firing pattern. The way it causes you to moan and to nurse the damaged body part is by triggering further neural processes which result in the flexing of the relevant muscles. In that case, though, it is the electrochemical properties alone that are doing the causal work, and the distinctively mental aspect – the experienced phenomenal character of the pain itself – seems epiphenomenal. This is called the “mental causation problem” and it is the aspect of the interaction problem for materialism that Bill focuses on. It arises in different ways for different varieties of materialism. (It threatens Donald Davidson’s anomalous monism, for example, because of his principle of the anomalism of the mental.)
But this isn’t the only way the interaction problem arises for materialism. It arises also because the mechanistic conception of the natural world makes body-body interaction as mysterious as mind-body interaction. And again, it does so because of the impoverished conception of causation the moderns put in place of the older Aristotelian-Scholastic conception.
The Aristotelian-Scholastic account of causation was rich in theoretical subtleties and carefully worked out distinctions. It included, not only the famous doctrine of the four causes – formal, material, efficient, and final – but also the act/potency distinction, the notion that causes and effects can sometimes be simultaneous, the distinction between causal series ordered per se and causal series ordered per accidens, the distinction between primary and secondary causes, the idea that causation involves the cause communicating something to its effect, an emphasis on substances rather than accidents or events as true causes, and so forth. But as Kenneth Clatterbaugh notes in The Causation Debate in Modern Philosophy 1637-1739, in the century or so between the time of Descartes’ work on the subject and that of Hume, virtually all of the characteristic theses of the Aristotelian-Scholastic account of causation were gradually abandoned. Of the four causes, only efficient causation was left, and in a radically modified form. Substances and their inherent causal powers were abandoned and causation was regarded instead as a relationship between events. Nothing was taken to be communicated from cause to effect and in principle anything might follow upon anything else.
What resulted, naturally, were the skeptical puzzles of Hume. The notion of causation as an objective feature of the world became problematic at best and unintelligible at worst. As I argue at length in The Last Superstition and Aquinas, and have discussed more briefly in earlier posts (e.g. here and here), this was inevitable given the abandonment of final causality. If there is nothing in a cause that inherently “points to” or is “directed at” the generation of a certain effect or range of effects, there is ultimately no way to make sense of the fact that it does indeed generate just that effect or effects.
Hence the fact that a material cause brings about just the material effect or effects it does becomes no less mysterious on the modern, mechanistic account of nature than mind-body interaction does. This is the reason bizarre theories like occasionalism and pre-established harmony had the cachet they did among some of the early moderns. The motivation was not, as is sometimes supposed, to find a way to salvage mind-body dualism. It was rather to find a way to deal with the fact that any causation at all in the natural order – even that between material bodies – seemed impossible given the new conception of nature.
But haven’t many contemporary philosophers tried to solve the puzzles about causation raised by the early modern philosophers, especially Hume? Indeed they have, but as I have shown in TLS and Aquinas, when they have attempted to provide a realist account of causation, the tendency has been to appeal to notions – inherent causal powers, “physical intentionality,” dispositions, and so forth – which essentially involve a return to something like an Aristotelian conception of nature. Clatterbaugh cites the example of Wesley Salmon, who in Four Decades of Scientific Explanation argues that genuine causal processes involve a “transmission” of “information,” and even of “structure,” from cause to effect. Like some of the other contemporary writers I’ve cited before (Armstrong, Molnar, et al.), Salmon does not realize that he sounds like a Scholastic.
The “interaction problem,” then, is not a problem for Cartesian dualism per se but for modern metaphysical positions in general, including materialism. Accordingly, its existence has no tendency whatsoever to provide an argument in favor of materialism over dualism. What it does provide is an argument in favor of a broadly Aristotelian-Scholastic metaphysics over any modern, mechanistic would-be replacement.