Sunday, June 12, 2011

O’Brien and Koons on metaphysics and morality

Over at Public Discourse, philosophers Matthew O’Brien and Robert Koons have posted a three-part series on metaphysics and morality: “What Does it Mean to be a ‘Political Animal’?”; “Moral Absolutes and the Humpty Dumpty Fallacy”; and “Who’s Afraid of Metaphysics?”  Give ‘em a read.  (By the way, if you haven’t seen The Waning of Materialism, an important recent anthology edited by Koons and George Bealer, you should check that out too.)

16 comments:

Anonymous said...

Augh yeah. Didn't know about Chisholm. This looks great.

Any reviews on The Waning of Materialism? There's only one Amazon review and it's positive, but if you guys have a more objective assessment, please poast.

Anonymous said...

I am an agnostic/ still looking person and am quite interetsed in what you have to say on your blog- it seems quite informative- and you seem like a good philosipher. It's just a pity that 9/10 of the posts here are against the shitty arguments the new atheists make.

Would you say your case is primaraly in the book you wrote on aquinas? I am naturally looking for all the pro/con material I can find on these argument. It would be the only way to make a rational decision, after all.

One otehr thing- which philosiphers would you advise I not read (excluding the new atheists, if you want to cakk them philosiphers). Which atheists and, more importantly, which christians would you not recommend. And which would you. Naturally, I want an even evaluation to a case made by aquinas which isn't very easy to find.

Thanks

tlamb said...

Hi Anon 1:04....
There is some fire directed at the New Atheists, but I think it's not nearly 9/10 of the posts.
Most of them are pretty much straight forward A-T metaphysics.

Anonymous said...

Anon 1:04,

We're sorry if that's the impression you got from the blog. Of course we (Prof. Feser and his commentariat) address those arguments some times, and it is important to do so given all the media attention that they get. But the main focus is, I think, to give an account of the state contemporary philosophy and science from an Aristotelian perspective.

Having read Prof. Feser's work, most of the stuff you seem to be interested in can be found in The Last Superstition and Aquinas, and some of it in Philosophy of Mind. He addresses the common misconceptions and objections to the A-T position, and gives an extensive list of complementary books and papers.

I don't think there's anyone I would recommend you not read. You have to address other people's arguments, no matter how fallacious or disingenuous they seem. Secular philosophers like Hume and Hobbes would be considered "bad" from the A-T perspective, but their arguments have to be addressed... same with "bad" Christian authors like Locke and Descartes; we're not fond of Paley either. Besides that, most contemporary popular philosophy is terrible.

Check Prof. Feser's books. He mentions the objections. You can go and read those objections and see if you find them convincing.

Hope this helps you. All the best in your search for the truth.

Anonymous said...

other anonymous- thanks for the reply. And sorry for the "9/10" comment. It's just that I see little point in even confronting the new atheistsn arguments, other then that they are popular. Well- I hope to be able to make an informed decision some day. Thanks.

Edward Feser said...

Anonymous @ 1:04,

Hello and welcome. It seems to me that, as others have said, you greatly exaggerate the proportion of posts devoted to New Atheist types. If you search the site you'll find a number of posts devoted to more serious critics of theism like Paul Edwards, Hume, Stephen Law, and others. You will also find a very large number of posts devoted to criticizing naturalism more generally. (See e.g. the many posts listed in the "Mind-body problem roundup" below, or those listed in the "Scientism roundup" from some time back.)

I have also been critical of some of my fellow theists (see the many posts on classical theism vs. theistic personalism, as well as those listed under "ID versus A-T roundup") and of course there are many posts on other themes (politics, culture, etc.). But maybe you were just referring to material pertaining to the theism vs. atheism debate.

Anyway, keep in mind that the point of the blog is not primarily to write up lengthy posts explaining the arguments for theism. The reason is that I have already done that at book-length, which is the only way I think it can be done effectively for people who are unfamiliar with the relevant metaphysical background. Much of what I do here is just to elaborate upon themes developed at greater length and in more detail in books and articles, apply it to specific issues as they come up, etc.

My most detailed defense of what I take to be the most important arguments for theism can be found in my book Aquinas. (An important supplement to its chapter on the Five Ways can be found, BTW, in my article "Existential Inertia and the Five Ways," which will be appearing soon in American Catholic Philosophical Quarterly.) I also defend some of those arguments in The Last Superstition, though that book is to some extent aimed at a more general and non-academic audience and is polemical in a way not all non-theists will go for. On the other hand, it contains more material on the history of philosophy, and on the relevance of the history of philosophy for a proper understanding of Aristotelian-Thomistic metaphysics, than Aquinas does.

Among other theistic writers, I most recommend those who are writing from a classical philosophical POV (i.e. from the POV of Neo-Platonism, Aristotelianism, or Thomism and other forms of Scholasticism). Naturally, I favor the Aristotelian-Thomistic tradition over the others. Just off the top of my head, among contemporary writers I'd recommend David Braine, David Conway, Brian Davies, John Haldane, Gyula Klima, Christopher Martin, Herbert McCabe, David Oderberg, Alexander Pruss, Katherin Rogers, William Vallicella, and others. Among philosophers who aren't writing from a "classical" POV, there are also William Lane Craig, J. P. Moreland, and others. Naturally I also respect the work of well-known figures like Plantinga and Swinburne, but I have serious disagreements with their core metaphysical commitments, which IMO concede too much to the moderns.

Among contemporary critics of theism, I think the most significant work has been done by people like Gale, Mackie, Oppy, Smith, Sobel, and others (again, those are just the first that come to mind). I find that even they do not really do justice to the A-T tradition, but in some cases they at least try to do more than the usual ill-informed hand-waving dismissal. (I address Mackie's criticisms of Aquinas in Aquinas.) And they take the other side seriously in a way that is in my view the mark of a serious atheist. Show me someone who thinks it is "obvious" that there are no serious arguments for theism and I'll show you an ignoramus. (I include my younger self. A guy like Keith Parsons is pretty much the 1991 version of me, I'm embarrassed to say. The difference between Parsons and me is that since then I've read a book or two in philosophy of religion that wasn't written after 1970.)

djindra said...

"Show me someone who thinks it is "obvious" that there are no serious arguments for theism and I'll show you an ignoramus."

And what's the counter to that? Show me someone who thinks it is "obvious" that there are serious arguments for theism and I'll show you an ignoramus?

Unfortunately that's what the "seriousness" around here generally devolves into.

Eric said...

"Show me someone who thinks it is "obvious" that there are no serious arguments for theism and I'll show you an ignoramus."

Indeed, and they seem to be all over the internet. Most go much further: Not only are there no serious arguments for theism (so they claim), but there's literally -- and I mean literally -- *no evidence whatsoever* for the existence of god. I've tried countless times to get these guys to provide me with an analysis of 'evidence' that would rule out every premise used in any of the many arguments for god's existence while allowing for the sorts of evidence scientists, historians, the courts, etc. accept uncontroversially. Needless to say, no one has even come close. (Actually, most never try; the standard retort is to accuse me of "obfuscation" and of playing "word games"). Anyway, I don't mean to derail the thread from discussion of the articles mentioned in the OP, but I had to get that off my chest.

"And what's the counter to that? Show me someone who thinks it is "obvious" that there are serious arguments for theism and I'll show you an ignoramus?"

Could you kindly explain, with at least some detail, why, say, Professor Feser's formulation of Aquinas's first way is not merely not persuasive to you, but doesn't even qualify as a serious argument for theism? (I'm sure much of this will turn on what you take a 'serious argument' to be.) Or, perhaps first I should ask, do you think that there are no serious arguments for theism? If you do, then could you tell me why Professor Feser's formulation of Aquinas's first way doesn't even count as a serious argument?

Anonymous said...

Djindra,

How is it that you take offense to the most uncontroversial of statements? Your counter does not follow at all. The claim that many atheists should be less oblivious to the rational and cogently argued side of theism is not synonymous with the claim that atheists should view theism as obviously powerful. They are still atheists, after all. The problem is an obnoxious moving of goal posts and a refusal to even consider arguments for the other side. This is a serious problem in the academy and one that, I think, most intellectual and serious atheists recognize.

Jake said...

Show me someone who thinks it is "obvious" that there are no serious arguments for theism and I'll show you an ignoramus."

And what's the counter to that? Show me someone who thinks it is "obvious" that there are serious arguments for theism and I'll show you an ignoramus?


No, the counter to that would obviously be, "Show me someone who thinks it is "obvious" that there are no serious arguments AGAINST theism and I'll show you an ignoramus." And I honestly can't think of any theist who doesn't take, e.g., the problem of evil to be a serious argument. Granted, theists reject the argument, but they do take it seriously.

djindra said...

Jake,

Honestly, I don't consider evil to be much of an argument against theism. But I don't have any illusions about supposed gods having to be perfect from the human point of view. To me that implies humans are the center of creation. There's no reason to suppose that even if we suppose God.

djindra said...

Eric,

I fall under the "no evidence whatsoever" category. If there is evidence, nobody has presented it to me.

God having his own talk show would suffice -- with a few good quips here and there to keep the public's interest.

djindra said...

Anonymous,

I don't offend easily. I was merely noting the climate. It has a lot to do with the tone on both sides.

djindra said...

The links are revealing, especially the first.

O'Brien and Koons frame morality as a conflict between the "atomistic individualist" and "organic collectivism." Curiously, both options are portrayed as monsters. The suggested way out is a thing called "social practice," without which "it may be impossible to justify moral absolutes."

It might be tempting to think "social practice" is some synthesis of individualism and collectivism. But that's wrong. It's "almost axiomatic" that a whole can't be so composed. Apparently we must reconcile ourselves with one of the monsters.

The choice is made when we are told "the relation between individual acts and social practices is analogous to the relation between cells and the whole organism of which the cells are parts." In other words, "social practice" falls under the "organic collectivism" banner. It sides with Rousseau but with a twist. Individual human acts, not individual human beings, are the cells of the social organism. It seems the individual's purpose must unite with a collective purpose..

After all, fish don't chose what it takes to be a good fish. Why should humans think they get to chose what it takes to be a good human? That intentionality you assumed we all had as subjective minds, forget it. True intentionality is build into us or accepted by us. Deviance from that could be vicious. Know that you are in the safety of a slave multitude. Freedom is in knowing you have become an "agent of the practice." Your intention will conform to "the intrinsic end (telos) of the practice itself." You have given yourself over like a baseball player gives himself to the game. Yes, you are a team player. Playing well for the team is how to find those "natural ends that define real and intrinsic value." Don't bother looking inside yourself.

That pretty much dispenses with the individual.

DNW said...

Djindra writes:

"After all, fish don't chose what it takes to be a good fish. Why should humans think they get to chose what it takes to be a good human?"

It's difficult to tell whether that is your disapproving characterization of the authors' position, or your own; since, you have advanced something quite similar about the nature of morality - or perhaps better, social impulses - yourself.

For example you have written:

"Antelope don't know why they travel in herds. Geese don't know why they mate for life. Why should we be expected to know why human cultures universally agree murder is wrong? Why is morality such a sacred question?

I don't need to know why my hand hurts when I stick it into a flame. The Bible doesn't answer the question. My body provides all the information I need and it reaches a decision fairly quickly. I yank my hand out of the flame to stop the pain. My body reaches a good decision without introspection and without God's help."

But of course the moral question [if we place virtue ethics aside] isn't why you should consider it immoral to stick your hand in a fire: utilitarian answer, "Because it hurts".

It has to do with whether [since you speak of murder and fire] there is some objective "Moral" reason that someone else, (perhaps finding you associatively unessential and personally annoying) should if they had the superior power and could suffer no negative consequences from doing so, refrain from tossing you into it, should the notion strike them as relieving.

And too - supposing he has a practical choice that opens up - does an antelope have an obligation to continue to be a herd traveling antelope or to care about the fate of those that do, once he realizes antelopes travel in herds and decides to make adjustments?

We know that monkeys apparently don't like to be cheated, and we are told that Bonobos supposedly like peace; but, who cares or should care, what they like?

djindra said...

DNW,

"It has to do with whether [since you speak of murder and fire] there is some objective 'Moral' reason that someone else, (perhaps finding you associatively unessential and personally annoying) should if they had the superior power and could suffer no negative consequences from doing so, refrain from tossing you into it, should the notion strike them as relieving."

In a world of no-negative-consequences, morality is not an issue. It become superfluous. The world as we have it is not exactly a game of one-on-one, winner takes all. So maybe two or three of my friends would toss the superior power into the flames first. Maybe my relatives would toss him into the flames when he finally falls asleep after his rampage. So if your point is that morality is at least partly communal, I would agree. We are social animals. Morality is founded in that.

We're not going to settle the moral question, that's for sure. I do believe morality is built into us. I don't believe we're infinitely malleable. I believe there may be "absolute" moral values. But I believe they may be nothing like what we normally think of as absolutes -- or what I would say, some people confuse as absolutes. I definitely do not think those absolutes are found in books (hence, my antelope example). And I don't think they necessarily work in harmony. Absolutes may contradict each other. On the one hand the individual wants to survive. On the other, he wants his loved-ones to survive. Each individual has an uncertain mix. Nevertheless, there is probably a norm and the question always comes down to how much weight the norm should carry.

And a second question is, is nature the final word? We long ago rejected that notion. If we were meant to fly we would have wings. Yet we fly anyway.

I think these are some places where the authors' position parts ways with mine.