Sunday, May 30, 2010

The Anscombe Bioethics Centre

The UK’s Linacre Centre for Healthcare Ethics is changing its name, location, and director. In future it will be known as The Anscombe Bioethics Centre, will be based in Oxford, and will be headed by David Jones, Professor of Bioethics at St Mary's University College, Twickenham and author of the fine book The Soul of the Embryo: An Enquiry Into the Status of the Human Embryo in the Christian Tradition. We can be confident that, as it did under previous director Helen Watt, the Centre will continue to produce many important publications, such as the recent Incapacity and Care: Controversies in Healthcare and Research.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Davies on the New Atheism

A reader kindly alerts me to this audio file of a lecture on the New Atheism by Fr. Brian Davies, whose views on divine simplicity we had reason recently to discuss. Give it a listen. I would not endorse everything Davies says here about the Bible and evolution, at least not without significant qualification. But his main point is one that cannot be repeated too often: The vulgar, anthropomorphic conception of God attacked by the New Atheists – though also, regrettably, defended by some well-meaning but muddleheaded Christian apologists – has nothing to do with the classical theism defended by the likes of Athanasius, Augustine, Anselm, and Aquinas, which has, historically, been central to Christian orthodoxy.

Under the mailbag

I want to thank my readers for all their feedback, in the comboxes, via email, and sometimes via snail mail too. I appreciate and value it very much, and I am sorry that I simply do not have the time to respond to all of it. I know that most readers realize this, but I find that the backlog of emails, letters, and combox remarks that I have yet to respond to (and, frankly, will at this point never get around to responding to) has grown so large that I wanted at least to make a general statement of thanks and regret that I cannot respond to every message individually.

Some general advice regarding emails and letters: As Bill O’Reilly says, “Keep it pithy.” All things being equal, brief messages to which I can provide brief replies are more likely to get responses, especially if I don’t know you. If I don’t know you and you send me a long email or letter asking for my opinion on various complicated philosophical, political, or theological questions, it is unlikely I am going to respond. I wish I could, and occasionally I can and do, but mostly I just don’t have the time. If I don’t know you but your concerns are of a more personal nature – career advice, philosophical or theological questions that you are really struggling with, or the like – then I will make an extra effort to respond, but even here there are limits, and I simply cannot provide lengthy replies or get into an ongoing dialogue. And if I don’t know you, please, please don’t write asking me to help you publish your book, or to read your manuscript, or to get you a job. I really wish I could help you, but I can’t. I’m sorry.

Regarding combox remarks, my responding is obviously less important, since other readers may have things to say, and their responses are sometimes more interesting than anything I could offer. But if you want me to respond personally, again, briefer is better. The probability of my having time to respond decreases as the length of your remarks increases, and if your comment is one of many lengthy comments, the probability of my responding approaches zero. (I would feel guilty responding only to one or two among many long comments in the queue, and I typically resolve the moral dilemma by responding to none of them.) A response is also less likely if you ask me to address something far afield from the subject of the blog post you’re ostensibly commenting on. But again, if you don’t care about my responding anyway but simply want to discuss something with other readers, have at it. I will chime in as I can.

Finally, and as should go without saying, please use common sense. 99% of my readers do so anyway, and these last remarks are not directed at them. But for the rest: Don’t take it personally when I do not respond to your comment or fail to address your pet issue. Be polite; if you send me a nasty email, I am going to delete it as soon as I see where it’s going. (I will take extra relish in doing so if it’s a very long email, so that the hour or two you spent stringing together your profanities and fallacies will have been completely wasted. Better to devote your time to something more worthwhile, such as getting a life.) If you’re snotty in the combox, don’t expect a polite reply, or any reply, and don’t feign outrage if your comment gets deleted. I moderate with a light hand – in the history of this blog, I have banned only two people, both of whom were really asking for it – but trolls will not be tolerated.

Monday, May 24, 2010

The Metaphysics of The Fly

David Cronenberg’s remake of The Fly is one of the two most disgusting movies I have ever seen; the other is John Carpenter’s remake of The Thing. I love them both. I hadn’t seen the former in years, but I watched the Collector’s Edition DVD the other night. (Here’s a tip: Do not do so while eating Thai food.) Part of the fun of movies of this sort is, of course, the philosophical questions they raise. To be sure, I am of the opinion that the philosophical value of science-fiction scenarios is overrated. Too many modern philosophers begin their inquiries into the nature of things with thought experiments about what they take to be at least metaphysically possible. From an Aristotelian-Thomistic (A-T) point of view (which, as my regular readers know, is my point of view) this has things precisely backwards. We must first determine what a thing’s nature is by considering what it is actually like, and only afterward can we determine what might be possible for it. Still, the point of at least “hard” science-fiction is to speculate only on the basis of what is actually known; and while most science-fiction movies hardly count as “hard SF,” the better ones at least rise above the level of sheer conjecture unworthy of philosophical reflection. Anyway, let’s pretend the one in question does, so I’ll have something to blog about today.

The Fly raises at least two philosophical questions. The first concerns what kind of thing it is Seth Brundle (the Jeff Goldblum character) has become by the end of the movie. Having had his genetic material accidentally spliced together with that of a housefly, he gradually transforms into something more and more fly-like, albeit at a (repulsively) human size. So is he still a human being by the end? Or a fly? Or of some new, hybrid species?

Part of the problem in answering questions about even the most carefully thought-out scenarios of this sort is that we simply have no actual facts to go on. The scenario might be inspired by reflection on certain bits of factual knowledge, but it is not itself factual. Moreover, such scenarios are typically under-described in crucial respects. What does Brundle’s interior anatomy look like at different stages in the transformation? How many human-like organs remain by the end? Is a basically vertebrate skeletal plan preserved throughout? (Presumably so or he’d have collapsed into a puddle of goo.) And what does the “Brundlefly” creature’s genetic make-up actually look like? There is no fact of the matter, and even if the movie had given an answer it would have been sheer speculation based on a “splicing” set up (the teleportation device) that is itself at best only tenuously related to any actual scientific knowledge. But, to go along with the gag, let’s speculate based on what we do “know” from the movie. (Spoiler alert: If you haven’t seen the movie, be aware that certain key plot points will be revealed below.)

The classical definition of a human being, one central to A-T traditionally, is, of course, that man is a rational animal. That does not mean that every human being actually reasons or is even capable of exercising his power of reason. Injury or genetic defect might impede the exercise of this power. Still, the power is always there to be impeded as long as we have a human being. A severely brain damaged human being is a brain damaged human being, and not (literally) a “vegetable,” even if he is reduced to his vegetative functions. He is still the sort of thing which when in “good working order” will reason. Contrast this with a dog, which never can reason even if it is healthy and whole.

So, even if Brundle at the end of his transformation had had no exercise of reason, that would not by itself show that he was no longer a rational animal. But as it happens, he does exercise reason to the bitter end. To be sure, after Veronica (the Geena Davis character) accidentally tears off his jaw and thereby (apparently) triggers the sloughing off of his other remaining human facial features to reveal a gigantic fly-like head (see above), he loses the power of speech. But he continues his attempt to carry out his scheme of splicing himself with Veronica and their unborn child to create a bizarre new three person/one fly hybrid. (More on that below.) He is, of course, completely mad by this point, but to be mad is to be irrational, not non-rational. Moreover, after his failure to accomplish the splice and the associated accidental merging of himself with part of the telepod, he is clearly “begging” Veronica to put him out of his misery when he grasps the end of the shotgun she is holding and raises it to his head. This is obviously meant to indicate that Brundle is still “in there.” So, he is still a rational animal, even if an absolutely horrific one.

But how could he thereby still be human given how radical his transformation has been? Wouldn’t he be some other, non-human sort of rational animal? There are two reasons to answer in the negative, one biological, the other metaphysical. To take them in order, first, as we have said, Brundle retains reason throughout; and while from an A-T point of view, having something like a functioning human neurophysiology is not a sufficient condition for being a rational animal (since the intellect is immaterial), it is a necessary condition. Since flies have nothing remotely like that, it is evident that “Brundlefly” has a more or less human nervous system. Add to that the fact that he must surely also have a human-like skeletal and muscular structure in order to do the things he does, and no doubt other human-like anatomical features as well, and it is plausible that what he is is essentially a severely damaged human being who has acquired certain fly-like features as a result of the genetic alteration he has undergone, rather than something essentially non-human.

But second, even if one insisted on judging him to be something other than a damaged Homo sapiens sapiens – though again, there is little in the way of “hard evidence” from the movie to go on – it wouldn’t necessarily follow that he isn’t human in a deeper, metaphysical sense. For I’ll see your David Cronenberg and raise you a David Oderberg: As the latter David argues in the section of Real Essentialism on the Porphyrian Tree, human is best understood as a metaphysical category under which any rational animal would fall even if it did not have a body plan or genetic code like ours. Though the point is, I think, moot. For “Brundlefly” is not merely a rational animal; given the evident psychological and bodily continuity he manifests throughout his radical transformation, there is no reason to doubt that he is the same rational animal as the rational animal who existed pre-transformation. And since that rational animal was a Homo sapiens sapiens, so too is the post-transformation Brundle.

So that’s one metaphysical question the movie raises, and there’s my answer to it. The other question it raises concerns the issue of personal identity, though only by implication. Again, there isn’t really any question that the creature as he actually exists onscreen is one and the same person, Seth Brundle, all the way through the movie, certainly given what has been said (and even if one wanted to divorce – as one shouldn’t – Brundle “the person” from Brundle “the human being”). But suppose Brundle had been able to carry out his scheme of “splicing” himself via the telepods with Veronica and their unborn child? Who would the resulting person have been?

Since we’re not given even a hint of how this disturbing scenario would have played out, there’s even less to go on in answering these questions than there was vis-à-vis the question already dealt with. But we can certainly imagine various outcomes – one in which the grotesque amalgam that walks out of the pod has a mixture of man-like, woman-like, and fly-like characteristics, one in which it is considerably more human-looking than “Brundlefly” was before but more androgynous and still somewhat fly-like, one in which the resulting creature appears to have competing personalities vying for control, one in which it appears to have a single personality with both Brundle-like and Veronica-like aspects, and so forth. As is typical with weirdo thought experiments of the kind personal identity theorists delight in, though, the “correct” interpretation of such fantasies cannot be determined from imagined behavioral and physiological phenomena alone. A metaphysics established on independent grounds – and in light of actual, normal cases – must be brought to bear. And from an A-T point of view, what we can know independently of all such thought experiments is that the human soul is the substantial form of the living human body, and (unlike other forms) an immaterial, subsistent form. (See Aquinas ch. 4, or Oderberg again, ch. 10.)

Hence, given the worked-out A-T hylemorphic conception of the soul, if we had evidence of both Brundle’s and Veronica’s psychological traits in whatever amalgam walked out of the machine, the correct interpretation would seem to be something like this: Both Brundle and Veronica will have survived as separate individuals in the amalgam, since their souls have each evidently survived and (being immaterial) cannot themselves intelligibly have gotten jumbled together. (The same thing will be true of Veronica’s unborn baby, even if it is not yet capable of manifesting any psychological characteristics.) But their bodies have gotten entangled, in a way that is more radical than, but still properly interpreted as an extension of, the sort of entanglement we see in the case of Siamese twins. In the Siamese case, there are two persons and two bodies, even if the bodies have been intimately linked and/or one or both have not been completely formed. And the same thing is true of the imagined Brundlefly/Veronica/baby splicing, even if the entanglement is more thorough and the disfigurement of the respective strands (the Brundle strand, Veronica strand, and baby strand) more radical.

So, that’s my take on the metaphysics of The Fly. Maybe I’ll get to The Thing some time. (It’s spaghetti you don’t want to eat while watching that one. And no orange crispy beef while watching Aliens. I’ve got a list…)

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Fight stereotypes!

Since we’ve been talking about stereotypes (at least by implication), here’s some weekend reading that clears up some of the more pernicious urban legends concerning the history of Christian civilization. Start with two older pieces from James Franklin:

“Myths about the Middle Ages”

“The Renaissance Myth”

And continue with two from Thomas Madden:

“The Real History of the Crusades”

“The Truth about the Spanish Inquisition”

There’s a lot more that could be said about these and related topics (e.g. Columbus) but that should suffice for whatever dinner party you might attend this evening, where the sensitive “progressive” types present will be extremely gratified to hear you expose some false stereotypes about an unpopular religious tradition.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Generally speaking

Bill Vallicella defends generalization. As Bill says, it really is amazing how silly and inconsistent people can be on this subject. The same people who express outrage at any suggestion that the actions of Islamic terrorists might have something to do with Islam have no qualms about making sweeping statements about conservative Christians. Defending themselves, they might say “We’re not claiming that every single conservative Christian is bigoted [or ignorant, or a threat to civil liberties, or whatever]. We’re saying that there’s something in their view of the world that has a tendency to lead to bigotry etc., which is why we think that many, though not all or even most, conservative Christians are that way.” And yet they insist on uncharitably reading the corresponding claim about Islam as if it meant “Every single Muslim is a terrorist or potential terrorist” – a silly claim which they have no difficulty refuting. But that is, of course, not what is meant by those who claim there is a link between Islam and terrorism.

To draw a general conclusion on the basis of an inadequate sample of particular cases is indeed a fallacy – the fallacy of hasty generalization. But it is crucial when evaluating some general conclusion to determine what kind of generalization it is, for this will determine in turn whether the sample is adequate and how to evaluate potential counterexamples. Some generalizations are strict generalizations – they claim that every single member of a certain category S has some attribute P. In that sort of case, to find even a single S that is not P suffices to refute the generalization. But many generalizations are what we might call loose generalizations. They do not claim that every single S is P, but rather only that S’s are for the most part P. And here, obviously, to refute the generalization it does not suffice to find single counterexample or, if the class of S’s is very large, even many counterexamples. When people say things like “Women are less aggressive than men,” they don’t mean “Every single woman is less aggressive than any man,” and it does not refute their claim to point to several examples of notably aggressive women and notably non-aggressive men. What they mean is that for the most part, even if not in every case, women are less aggressive than men. Those who treat such claims as if they were strict generalizations and then pat themselves on the back for their logical acumen when they come across a counterexample really only show themselves to be incapable of making a very simple distinction.

Then there are what Philippa Foot and Michael Thompson call “Aristotelian categoricals,” general statements of the form “S’s are P” that convey a norm. For example, when we say “Dogs are four-legged,” we don’t mean that every single dog without exception has four legs, but neither do we merely mean that dogs for the most part have four legs. We mean that in the normal case a dog will have four legs, that every dog qua dog has an inherent tendency to have four legs unless impeded by injury, genetic defect, or the like. Hence, to refute an Aristotelian categorical, it also does not suffice to point to various counterexamples.

In short, you might say: We shouldn’t generalize about generalizations. They’re not all the same.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Davies on divine simplicity and freedom

Brian Davies’ article “Simplicity” (as in divine simplicity, the subject of an earlier post) appears in the new Cambridge Companion to Christian Philosophical Theology, edited by Charles Taliaferro and Chad Meister. Davies is one of the most important contemporary philosophers of religion writing from a Thomistic point of view, or any point of view for that matter. For my money, the current (third) edition of his book An Introduction to the Philosophy of Religion is the best introduction to the field on the market. His most recent book, The Reality of God and the Problem of Evil is probably the best book on the problem of evil now in print. His 1992 book The Thought of Thomas Aquinas is probably the best single volume in print for anyone looking for an overview of the whole range of Aquinas’s philosophical and theological thinking that is accessible but still sophisticated and informed by contemporary philosophy. (Not to knock my own book, of course! But its approach is to pursue a few topics in some depth, and strictly philosophical ones at that; whereas the strength of Davies’ book is its breadth, and it treats matters of sacred theology that I say nothing about in my book.)

More than most other contemporary philosophers of religion, Davies is sensitive to the radical differences between classical theism and the modern approach to philosophical theology he calls “theistic personalism” and others have called “neo-theism.” ( I have addressed this theme several times on this blog, e.g. here.) This theme has increasingly informed his work, and the centrality to classical theism of the doctrine of divine simplicity is something he has written about on several occasions (including the works cited above – the Introduction provides a particularly useful overview of the dispute between classical theism and theistic personalism and the disagreement over simplicity that it hinges on).

One of the objections often raised against the doctrine of divine simplicity (and hence against classical theism) is that it seems incompatible with the notion that God acted freely in creating the world. In a recent post on divine simplicity, Bill Vallicella summarizes the objection this way:

On classical theism, God is libertarianly free: although he exists in every metaphysically possible world, he does not create in every such world, and he creates different things in the different worlds in which he does create. Thus the following are accidental properties of God: the property of creating something-or-other, and the property of creating human beings. But surely God cannot be identical to these properties as the simplicity doctrine seems to require. It cannot be inscribed into the very nature of God that he create Socrates given that he freely creates Socrates. Some writers have attempted to solve this problem, but I don't know of a good solution.

Davies’ response to this sort of objection in the Cambridge Companion article is to suggest that it rests on a misunderstanding of the claim that God is free, at least as that claim is understood by a thinker like Aquinas. When we say of a human being that he is, for example, free to read or to refrain from reading the rest of this blog post, we are making a claim that entails that his history as a spatio-temporal individual could take one of at least two alternative courses. But that cannot be what it means to say that God is free, because (for Aquinas and the Aristotelian-Thomistic tradition in general, anyway) God is changeless and eternal, existing entirely outside the spatio-temporal order. Nor does it mean that God may or may not acquire some contingent property. For Davies, the claim that God creates freely ought instead to be understood as a statement of negative theology, a claim about what God is not rather than a claim about what He is. In particular, to say that God is free either to create or not create Socrates is to say, first, that God is not compelled either by His own nature or by anything external to Him either to create or not create Socrates, and second, that neither the notion of Socrates’ existing nor that of Socrates’ not existing entails any sort of contradiction or inherent impossibility. And that’s it. The suggestion that divine simplicity is incompatible with divine freedom thus rests on a tendency to attribute to God anthropomorphic qualities that are precisely what the doctrine of divine simplicity denies of Him.

It seems to me that Davies’ point about negative theology here is correct as far as it goes, though incomplete. (In general, it seems to me that Davies’ work perhaps overemphasizes negative theology a bit – as I argue in Aquinas, I think this is true, for example, of his reading of Aquinas’s doctrine that God’s essence and existence are identical.) More could be said in response to the claim that divine simplicity and freedom and incompatible. For example, as I explained in the earlier post on divine simplicity, God’s creating the universe (or just Socrates for that matter) is what Barry Miller (following the lead of Peter Geach) calls a “Cambridge property” of God, and the doctrine of divine simplicity does not rule out God’s having accidental Cambridge properties. (In fairness to Davies, though, he does make similar points in his other writings on this subject.)

There is also to be considered the Scholastic distinction between that which is necessary absolutely and that which is necessary only by supposition. For example, it is not absolutely necessary that I write this blog post – I could have decided to do something else instead – but on the supposition that I am in fact writing it, it is necessary that I am. Similarly, it is not absolutely necessary that God wills to create just the world He has in fact created, but on the supposition that He has willed to create it, it is necessary that He does. There is this crucial difference between my will and God’s, though: Whereas I, being changeable, might in the course of writing this post change my mind and will to do something else instead, God is immutable, and thus cannot change what He has willed from all eternity to create. In short, since by supposition He has willed to create this world, being immutable He cannot do otherwise; but since absolutely He could have willed to create another world or no world at all, He is nevertheless free.

We might also emphasize a point that, while somewhat tangential to the aspect of divine freedom Bill Vallicella is concerned with, is still crucial to understanding that freedom and very much in the spirit of Davies’ approach. Modern writers, largely under the massive but largely unrecognized influence of Ockham’s voluntarism and nominalism (about which I plan to devote a post in the near future) tend to think of a free will as one that is inherently indifferent to the ends it might choose. But for Thomists, the will of its nature is oriented to the good; even when we do evil, it is always because we mistakenly regard it as at least in some sense good. (I say more about this in chapter 5 of Aquinas.) It is true that in human beings, freely choosing a life of virtue typically involves change, but that is because we have weaknesses to overcome and ignorance about what is truly good that needs to be remedied. And these are not marks of freedom, but rather of its relative absence. God, in whom there is no weakness or ignorance, cannot possibly do evil; and this makes Him, not less free than we are, but more free. Again, this does not speak directly to the issue Bill raises, but it does illustrate how, as Davies emphasizes, properly to understand divine freedom we have to avoid anthropomorphism.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Oderberg on the mainstream media

Courtesy of Professor David Oderberg’s lecture “Appearance and reality: what Plato can teach journalists and the media,” recently given at a seminar on journalism and ethics at Christ Church, University of Oxford.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

God, man, and masculinity

A reader asks how God can legitimately be characterized in masculine terms, as He traditionally is. After all, sex – being either male or female – is part of our corporeal nature, while God is incorporeal and thus literally neither male nor female. Part of the answer has to do with natural theology – that is to say, with what we know of God through philosophical arguments alone – and part of it has to do with what we know from divine revelation.

Consider first that among the things we know about God via natural theology, at least from an Aristotelian-Thomistic (A-T) point of view (where the relevant A-T arguments are defended at length in The Last Superstition and Aquinas), are that His attributes include intellect and will. But since possession of intellect and will is definitive of persons, it follows that God cannot correctly be referred to as an “it” or in any other impersonal terms. (It is true that for A-T, terms like “intellect” and “will” apply to God in an analogical rather than a univocal sense, but that does not affect the point. For what it means to say that there is in God something analogous to intellect and will in us does not make God less than personal; quite the opposite.)

So, only personal terms will do. But why “He” rather than “She”? Well, consider further that from the point of view of classical natural law theory, the fundamental natural social institution – the family – has the father as its head. Obviously this is a large and controversial topic, and one I have no intention of getting into here in any detail. Suffice it to say that the claim is not that men are morally superior to women, or that they have dictatorial rights over their wives and children, or that all men are born leaders and all women born followers. The claim is rather that in any orderly social arrangement there must be some ultimate authority, and that nature has ordained that at least in the normal case it is in the father in whom this authority resides. For when human beings are living in accordance with what the natural law requires of them in the area of sexual morality, families will tend to be large. Obviously this would put a very great burden on mothers if there were no one to protect and provide for them and their children, but protecting and providing for them is precisely what a father is supposed to do. And that, from the point of view of natural law theory, is why men tend to be more assertive and oriented to the public rather than the domestic realm, and thus more oriented toward leadership. Obviously there are exceptions, but for natural law theory it is the normal case that determines the content of morality.

Again, this is a large topic, and since the subject of the post is theology rather than ethics or feminism, I’m not going to pursue it further. The point for our purposes is that at least from the perspective of the moral theory associated with A-T, paternal and thus masculine imagery is naturally going to be regarded as the appropriate sort to use when characterizing God’s relationship to His creatures. For they are dependent on Him in a way comparable to a family’s dependence on a father; and He has authority over them comparable to the authority a father has over his family.

That is one consideration. A second has to do with the way God creates. From a classical theistic perspective, God creates the world ex nihilo rather that out of His own substance. Creation is thus in no way comparable to gestation and birth, imagery which, when applied to theology, suggests either pantheism or a pagan cosmogony. The divine creative act is more like the relatively “distant” role played by the father in procreation. Accordingly, paternal and thus masculine imagery better conveys God’s transcendence.

Again, these considerations derive entirely from what can be known about God through purely philosophical arguments. But there are also considerations deriving from divine revelation. Not the least of these is that when God took on human flesh, He did so precisely as a man rather than as a woman – which is exactly what we should expect given the considerations drawn from natural theology. Furthermore, the Incarnation involved God’s miraculously causing a woman to become pregnant, of its nature a masculine act. And the Holy Trinity of which Jesus Christ is the second Person is of course a Trinity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – masculine descriptions of this sort being, again, exactly what we would expect given what we know of God via the purely philosophical arguments.

Moreover, the entire Christian understanding of salvation presupposes a masculine conception of God. Individual human souls (whether those of men or women) have, given their dependence on God, always been conceived of in the Christian tradition in female terms, e.g. as virgins awaiting their Bridegroom (Matthew 25: 1-13). The faithful are also characterized as children of Holy Mother Church, who is the Bride of Christ. The point of this imagery is that the role of the Church relative to the faithful is comparable to that of a mother who nourishes her child in the womb in preparation for birth – the “birth” in the case of the faithful being their entry into eternal life. And God protects and provides for the Church and the faithful as a husband and father does his wife and children.

To suggest that God might be described as a mother or wife would make nonsense of all of this, and (given the outré sexual imagery it would suggest) add blasphemy into the bargain. And it can have no justification whatsoever in either reason or revelation. Feminists who pretend otherwise are worshipping a god of their own invention. There’s a name for that sort of thing.

(All of these considerations are, by the way, relevant to the question of why from a Catholic point of view women can never in principle be ordained priests. For the priest is an alter Christus, “another Christ,” who absolves us of our sins and transforms mere bread and wine into divine flesh and blood. He is the father of his flock. His role is God-like, and thus, given what has been said, essentially masculine. Even the greatest human being ever to have lived other than Christ Himself – His Blessed Mother – was not made by Him a “priestess.” Yet the honor in which she is held by the Church and the faithful – honor which the Church’s enemies typically claim is excessive – gives the lie to the calumny that the Church is “misogynist.” But I digress.)

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

ID versus A-T roundup

Never fear, dear reader, we really are through with the “Intelligent Design” (ID) versus Aristotelico-Thomism (A-T) debate for a while, and will now return to the regular mix of posts on philosophy, theology, breathtakingly reactionary politics and pretentious pop culture analysis. But in response to requests from many readers (well, from one reader anyway), I thought I would put up a guide to the myriad ID versus A-T related posts that have appeared in this space over the last year or so. Just in case there is anyone out there not yet ready to put his fist through the monitor at the very thought of such a thing. Feser’s blog: Where it’s A-T! And all the time. (And no, I refuse to taunt my critics by linking to that other Beck video. Let’s be grown-ups here, people.)

So here it is. For some posts spelling out the differences between Aristotelian and modern approaches to final causality or teleology, see:

Nature versus art

Final causality and Aristotle's Unmoved Mover

For a more formal and scholarly treatment, see my Philosophia Christi article on the subject:

Teleology: A Shopper's Guide

For some posts discussing various modern non-A-T writers who have advocated something like a return to Aristotelian final causality and/or called attention to the deficiencies of a mechanistic conception of nature, see:

For discussion of what is, from an A-T point of view, theologically and metaphysically objectionable about a mechanistic approach to nature and/or about Paley's design argument, see:

Thomism versus the design argument

On Aristotle, Aquinas, and Paley: A Reply to Marie George

And for posts which are aimed even more specifically at ID theory, see:

Cudworth and Fuller respond

Unhinged Dissent

Heads ID wins, tails you lose: A reply to Jay Richards

Reply to Torley and Cudworth

I’ve probably forgotten something here or there – let me know if there are any other posts you think I should include. And as always, keep in mind that many of these posts presuppose themes I’ve developed in detail in The Last Superstition and Aquinas.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Deus ex machina?

One more post related to the “Intelligent Design” theory (ID) versus Aristotelico-Thomism (A-T) controversy and then we’ll be done with it for a while. I have emphasized repeatedly that the central objections A-T has against ID are (a) that ID presupposes a mechanistic conception of the natural world, and (b) that ID applies language both to human designers and to God in a “univocal” rather than “analogous” way (in the sense of “analogous” associated with the Thomistic doctrine of analogy). As I have noted before, ID defender VJ Torley has essentially conceded point (b) (though without seeming to realize that this suffices to put ID at odds with A-T), and those who have taken issue with what I have said seem for the most part not to have challenged it. The attention has focused instead on point (a), the charge of mechanism. Defenders of ID concede that the ID approach is mechanistic, but those among them who claim that ID and A-T are compatible insist that this mechanism is purely “methodological” or held only “for the sake of argument,” in a way that need not offend A-T metaphysical scruples. I have argued that ID and A-T are incompatible even if ID’s mechanism is purely methodological.

Let’s leave that debate aside for the moment, though, and consider why it matters. So what if ID is mechanistic? We can begin our answer to that question by recalling what “mechanism” means in this context. Obviously it has something to do with conceiving of the natural world as a kind of “machine” and of the objects within it, including living things, as lesser “machines” within this larger machine. But that is not the core of the notion, and if all that “mechanism” involved was the view that organisms or other natural objects are in some respects comparable to the things people make insofar as they are composed of intricately arranged parts, etc. there would be no objection to it. As I have repeatedly emphasized, what makes a conception of nature “mechanistic” in the sense objectionable to A-T is that it denies the existence of final causality or teleology as an immanent feature of the natural world. For the mechanist, nothing in the natural order inherently or of its nature “points to” anything else as an end or goal, and nothing is inherently or of its nature “for the sake of” anything else. Accordingly, the mechanist also rejects what the Scholastics called “substantial forms” – immanent natures or essences of things, by virtue of which they have the ends or final causes they do. Mechanists who are also theists hold, accordingly, that any final causality, teleology, essences or natures that exist in the world are extrinsic to it, imposed from outside in a fashion comparable to the way the function of serving as a mousetrap is imposed by an artificer on bits of wood and metal that have no inherent tendency to kill mice specifically. This is the view of thinkers like Newton, Boyle, Paley, and other modern defenders of the “design argument” for the existence of God. By contrast, mechanists who are naturalists or atheists deny that there is any genuine teleology in the natural world at all, of either the intrinsic or extrinsic sort.

Note that this is not my own idiosyncratic definition of what a “mechanistic” conception of nature amounts to. To be sure, the early modern thinkers who put mechanism at the center of Western thought often had other things in mind as well – such as the now-discredited notion that all causality could be reduced to a crude “push-pull” contact model – but it is widely agreed that the core of their position, and the part that has survived to the present day, is the rejection of substantial forms and immanent final causes. Philosopher of science David Hull says that “historically, explanations were designated as mechanistic to indicate that they included no reference to final causes or vital forces. In this weak sense, all present-day scientific explanations are mechanistic” (from the article on “Mechanistic explanation” in The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy). Philosopher of religion William Hasker holds that “mechanistic causation and mechanistic explanation are fundamentally nonteleological” and that “it was the expulsion of final causes from physics by Descartes and Galileo that marked what was perhaps the most decisive break between ancient and modern natural science” (The Emergent Self, pp. 63 and 64, emphasis in original). Philosopher of mind Tim Crane writes that “in the seventeenth century… the Aristotelian method of explanation – in terms of final ends and ‘natures’ – was replaced by a mechanical or mechanistic method of explanation… To put it very roughly, we can say that, according to the mechanical world picture, things do what they do not because they are trying to reach their natural place or final end, or because they are obeying the will of God, but, rather, because they are caused to move in certain ways in accordance with the laws of nature” (The Mechanical Mind, Second edition, p. 3). Historian of philosophy Margaret Osler notes that while it is not quite right to exclude God per se from mechanistic explanation (as Crane does), “most seventeenth-century mechanical philosophers rejected immanent final causes – in the sense of the actualization of forms – [and] accepted an idea of finality as imposed on nature from without… With the mechanical reinterpretation of final causes, the idea of individual natures that possess immanent finality was replaced with the idea of nature as a whole which is the product of the divine artificer. Nature became a work of art” (“From Immanent Natures to Nature as Artifice: The Reinterpretation of Final Causes in Seventeenth Century Natural Philosophy,” The Monist vol. 79, no. 3 (July 1996), pp. 389-90).

Now, the A-T philosopher would strongly object to the suggestion that science per se is mechanistic in this sense. The truth is that mechanism is not an empirical discovery at all, but rather a philosophical or methodological preference that has been imposed on modern scientific inquiry by fiat; and the actual empirical findings of modern science are all perfectly compatible with an A-T philosophy of nature. But the authors just quoted are all correct to hold that it is the rejection of final causes and substantial forms that is definitive of mechanism, and that mechanism in this sense is commonly (if mistakenly) regarded as essential to science.

In any event, and as Osler’s remarks indicate, it is in light of this rejection of Aristotelian formal and final causes that the significance of the modern tendency to think of the world as a “machine” – in the sense of an intricate mechanical object comparable to a watch or some other artifact – must be understood. As I have said, to call attention merely to the intricacy and interconnectedness of the parts of organisms and other natural phenomena is by itself unobjectionable. The problem, for A-T, is to think of these parts as having no more inherent or built-in tendency to function together to fulfill a common end than the parts of a watch or a mousetrap do. It is because theistically-inclined mechanists deny such inherent tendencies no less than naturalists do that they focus on questions of probability; for if there is no inherent tendency of the parts of any natural object to function together as they do in the first place, the only way to show that some particular natural object (a biological organ, say) is not susceptible of a naturalistic explanation would seem to be to argue that it is so complex that it is improbable that the parts could have gotten together in just the way they have via purely natural processes. (When A-T philosophers criticize the arguments of Paley or ID theorists for being probabilistic, then, it is not at bottom the appeal to probabilities per se that they object to, but rather the mechanistic conception of nature that motivates such an appeal in this particular context.)

But again, so what if ID or any other theory is mechanistic in this sense? Part of the answer is, naturally, that A-T regards mechanism as false, which is enough reason to reject any view committed to it. But mechanism is a particularly pernicious metaphysical error. Indeed, it is from an A-T point of view arguably the cardinal error of modern thought, from which all the other moral and philosophical pathologies of modern world derive. I noted in an earlier post that it is in mechanism that the modern philosophical tendency toward reductionism is rooted. And I argue at length in The Last Superstition – especially in chapter 5 – that it is also in mechanism that we find the roots of such so-called “traditional” philosophical problems as the mind-body problem, the problem of personal identity, the problem of induction, the problem of giving rational foundations to morality, the problem of epistemological skepticism, and the problem of free will. (At least the latter three problems admittedly predate the modern mechanistic revolution, but were made particularly intractable by it.) Morality and even science itself become unintelligible when one attempts to interpret them in a mechanistic context. As W. T. Stace once wrote, the moderns’ abandonment of final causes was “the greatest revolution in human history, far outweighing in importance any of the political revolutions whose thunder has reverberated through the world,” and in its conception of the natural world as inherently “purposeless, senseless, meaningless” lay “the ruin of moral principles and indeed of all values” (“Man Against Darkness,” The Atlantic (September 1948)). Stace – who was writing from an empiricist rather than an A-T perspective – also recognized that this revolution was purely philosophical and not grounded in any actual empirical scientific discovery. And as I noted in another earlier post, other thinkers outside the A-T orbit (such as Alfred North Whitehead and E. A. Burtt) have also acknowledged the philosophical rather than scientific foundations of the mechanistic revolution, and noted its philosophically problematic implications for the science in whose name mechanists have defended their revolution.

More to the present point, though, is that mechanism is simply incompatible with classical theism – the conception of God historically central both to Christian orthodoxy and to classical philosophical theology, and defended by such thinkers as Athanasius, Augustine, Anselm, Aquinas, and (outside the Christian context) by Maimonides, Avicenna, and others. At the core of classical theism is the doctrine of divine simplicity (discussed in this earlier post) according to which there is in God no composition whatsoever. He is not “made up” of either physical or metaphysical parts, the way everything else that exists is – of form and matter, say, or act and potency, or essence and existence. Rather, he just is “pure act” and subsistent existence. He is not “a being” alongside other beings, but rather Being Itself. Also central to classical theism is the notion that the world of created, contingent things could not continue in existence even for an instant were God not continuously preserving it in being. These doctrines are linked. It is because everything in the created order is composite that it must be “held together” in being by something outside it; and it is because God alone is simple or non-composite that He alone can be that which preserves everything else in being in this way.

Now, for A-T, the Aristotelian distinction between act and potency is crucial to understanding divine simplicity, divine conservation, and the connection between them. The essence of a contingent thing (and thus the contingent thing itself) is merely potential or “in potency” until that essence is actualized through being conjoined to an “act of existence.” Matter is merely potential unless conjoined to and actualized by form. In general, potency cannot exist on its own but only when conjoined to actuality. But only that which is Pure Act can possibly end any regress of “actualizers,” precisely because it is simple and has no parts whose conjunction needs to be actualized. Thus the world of composite things could not exist for an instant unless that which is purely actual and absolutely simple were continually holding it together. (As usual, see The Last Superstition and Aquinas for the full story.)

As I have noted before, the act/potency distinction and the notion of final causality are intimately related: A potency or potential is a potency for some act or actuality, toward which it points as an end; and to have an end is to be in potency towards it. It is no accident, then, that when the moderns abandoned final causality for mechanism, the act/potency distinction was abandoned as well. And it is no accident either that the world came to seem like a “machine,” not only in the sense of a kind of artifact cobbled together from parts having no inherent tendency to function toward a common end, but also in the sense of being the sort of thing that might in principle continue to exist even in the absence of a “machinist.” The doctrine of divine conservation gave way to deism, and deism in turn to atheism.

Keep in mind that for Aristotle and the Scholastic tradition influenced by him, the act/potency distinction is crucial to avoiding the extremes represented by Parmenides and Heraclitus, on either of which science becomes impossible. For Parmenides, change is illusion, and thus so too is the world of our experience, on which any empirical science would need to base its findings. For Heraclitus, permanence is the illusion and there is nothing that can unite the deliverances of experience into an orderly scientific system. Aristotle argued, contra Parmenides, that change is possible because in between being and absolute non-being – the only two categories recognized by Parmenides – there is potency or potentiality. But (contra Heraclitus) permanence is also possible, because within the flux of experience emphasized by Heraclitus there are unchanging forms or essences which matter must take on if it is to be actualized at all. It is because these actualizing forms are universal, common to the myriad individuals which instantiate them, and because they persist even as the individual things come and go, that science is possible. For it is the unchanging and universal forms or natures of things that form the proper subject matter of scientific investigation.

Now, the ancient atomists sought to avoid the Parmenidean and Heraclitean extremes in another way. For them, the world of our experience is indeed the flux Heraclitus said it was, but only because underlying it is a world of unobservable unchanging and indestructible (and in that sense “Parmenidean”) elements – the atoms, interacting according to patterns of efficient causation and devoid of any inherent teleology or final causality. But there is nothing further to be said in explanation of the atoms themselves. Limited as the various atoms are to their particular shapes, sizes, positions in space, etc., they cannot intelligibly be said to be purely actual, simple, or in any other way comparable to (and as “self-explanatory” as) the God of classical theism. Nor, devoid as they are of final causality, do they necessarily point beyond themselves to anything else. Accordingly, they constitute the proverbial “brute fact.” Instead of truly avoiding the Parmenidean and Heraclitean extremes, then, the atomists essentially embraced both of them at once: Like Parmenides, they held that the world of our experience is illusory; in reality there is “nothing but” the atoms. And like Heraclitus, they make the world ultimately unintelligible.

But the atomists were the original mechanists, and their modern successors simply repeat their errors. As I have noted in several earlier posts and have argued at length in The Last Superstition and Aquinas, to reject immanent final and formal causes is to make efficient causality unintelligible as well. For if nothing of its nature “points beyond itself” to anything else, then causes and effects become “loose and separate”; any effect or none might in principle follow upon any cause. This not only paves the way for the paradoxes of Hume, but undermines the possibility of showing how the very fact of efficient causation as such – that is to say, of potency being actualized – presupposes a sustaining, purely actual Uncaused Cause. The metaphysically necessary connection between the world and God is broken; in principle the world could exist and operate just as it does apart from God.

There are of course still questions about how the elements of the world machine (whether we think of these elements as Democritean atoms or in more contemporary terms) come to form more or less complex structures. But the weighing of probabilities vis-à-vis whether this or that structure could have come about through known natural processes can never get you one inch closer to the God of classical theism, because that God has already been ruled out the moment it is conceded that the machine might at least in principle have existed without Him. This remains so even if one’s mechanism is adopted only “for the sake of argument.” Making a case for the God of classical theism on a mechanistic basis even arguendo is like saying “Let’s concede just for the sake of argument that whoever murdered Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman could not have been a man. Now, let me show you why it is probable, given that assumption, that O. J. Simpson was the killer…” The procedure is absurd, because the opening concession has already eliminated the desired conclusion from the running.

But couldn’t one argue that the elements themselves must have come from God? Yes, but not in a “mechanistic” way. For if one affirms of these elements something like an act/potency composition, then one will indeed get to God, but (since such a composition entails final causality) only because one has implicitly abandoned mechanism. But if one insists on denying of the elements any kind of immanent final causality, then one will thereby implicitly be denying of them any sort of potency that needs to be actualized by something outside them. And in that case, the elements will not be necessarily sustained in being by God. Thus, whatever one appeals to in order to explain them could never be the God of classical theism, but only some idolatrous ersatz. Similarly, the God of classical theism is Being Itself, and nothing could exist – that is to say, have being – even for an instant, even in principle, without participating in Being Itself (whether “participation” is understood in Neo-Platonic terms or in the Aristotelianized terms of Aquinas’s Fourth Way). To “weigh the probabilities” that the elements of a mechanistic universe might themselves have a cause is thus implicitly to rule out the God of classical theism as the cause one is arguing for, since whether a thing participates in Being Itself cannot intelligibly be said to be a matter of probability, any more than whether a geometrical theorem follows from certain axioms is a matter of probability.

As Kant famously held, the “physico-theological” or “design” argument for God’s existence really doesn’t get you to God at all, but only to a grand but finite cosmic architect – something like the Ralph Richardson Supreme Being character from Time Bandits, as I pointed out in a previous post. The same is true of any argument that proceeds, as Paley and his successors have done, by portraying God as a tinkerer who cobbles together a mechanistic universe. And the point, as I cannot repeat too often, is not that such arguments don’t get you all the way to the God of classical theism, but that they get you positively away from the God of classical theism. You can get a god from a machine, but never the God.

Hayek and scientism

My recent two-part essay on scientism for Public Discourse has just been reprinted as “Hayek and Scientism” in the Spring 2010 issue of The City. If you missed it the first time around, here’s your chance to catch up. And if you did read it before and didn’t like it, see what you think now that it’s got a new title and has been laid out all pretty, magazine-style. Or at least check out the rest of the issue.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Scholastic’s Bookshelf, Part IV (UPDATED)

I have recommended Michael Cronin’s long out-of-print two-volume The Science of Ethics as possibly the best of the old Neo-Scholastic manuals of ethics written in English. Reader Deogolwulf kindly informs us that both volumes are available online via Browsing through the archive, I’ve found several other old philosophical and theological works worth calling attention to, which (along with Cronin) I’ve listed below, as an addition to my “Scholastic’s Bookshelf” series of posts (the earlier installments of which can be found here, here, and here). I’ll add further works to the list as I discover them:

Bernard Boedder, Natural Theology

Philotheus Boehner, Medieval Logic

P. Coffey, Epistemology, Volume I and Volume II

P. Coffey, Ontology

P. Coffey, The Science of Logic, Volume I and Volume II

Charles Coppens, A Brief Textbook of Logic and Mental Philosophy

Charles Coppens, A Brief Textbook of Moral Philosophy

Michael Cronin, The Science of Ethics, Volume I and Volume II

Walter Devivier and Sebastian Messmer, Christian Apologetics: A Defense of the Catholic Faith

Maurice de Wulf, Scholasticism Old and New

Thomas Gilby, Barbara Celarent: A Description of Scholastic Dialectic

Thomas Harper, The Metaphysics of the School, Volume I, Volume II, and Volume III

Sylvester Joseph Hunter, Outlines of Dogmatic Theology, Volume I, Volume II, and Volume III

G. H. Joyce, Principles of Logic

G. H. Joyce, Principles of Natural Theology

A. Koch and A. Preuss, A Handbook of Moral Theology, Volume I, Volume II, and Volume III

Michael Maher, Psychology: Empirical and Rational

Cardinal Mercier et al., A Manual of Modern Scholastic Philosophy, Volume I and Volume II

John O’Neill, Cosmology: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Matter

J. Pohle and A. Preuss, Christology

J. Pohle and A. Preuss, The Divine Trinity

J. Pohle and A. Preuss, Eschatology, or The Catholic Doctrine of the Last Things

J. Pohle and A. Preuss, God: His Knowability, Essence, and Attributes

J. Pohle and A. Preuss, God, the Author of Nature and the Supernatural

J. Pohle and A. Preuss, Grace, Actual and Habitual

J. Pohle and A. Preuss, Mariology

J. Pohle and A. Preuss, The Sacraments, Volume I, Volume II, Volume III, and Volume IV

J. Pohle and A. Preuss, Soteriology

John Rickaby, General Metaphysics

Joseph Rickaby, Scholasticism

M. Scheeben, J. Wilhelm, and T. B. Scannell, A Manual of Catholic Theology, Based on Scheeben’s Dogmatik, Volume I and Volume II

Thomas Walshe, Principles of Christian Apologetics