Saturday, August 20, 2011

A final word on Eric MacDonald

That Eric MacDonald’s criticisms of my book The Last Superstition are devoid of any merit whatsoever is clear from the evidence adduced in the two posts I have devoted to him already (here and here).  If there is any lingering doubt, the present post will dispel it.  A slightly chastened MacDonald has now himself admitted (in what he says will be his final word on my book) that he “was not comfortable with [the] conclusions” he had drawn after his first attempt to deal with the substance of my arguments, that he has “misunderstood” at least some of those arguments, and that his contemptible Himmler comparison “was perhaps over the top.”  Yet he commends to us his final feeble effort to respond to my arguments, still appears to cling to for the most part to his earlier criticisms, and retracts none of the nastiness he has relentlessly directed towards me personally.  (To be sure, he thinks this nastiness is justified by the polemical tone of my book and by my aggressive response to his nastiness.  It is not, for reasons I will get to presently.) 

I have said that MacDonald can be acquitted of the charge of grave intellectual dishonesty only on pain of conviction for gross incompetence, and I provided ample evidence in my previous post.  MacDonald’s latest effort succeeds only in providing yet further evidence for this charge.  For example, MacDonald writes: 

Now, probably most of you have never heard of eliminative materialism, but it is all the rage in some philosophical/cognitive science circles.  The “whole point of the theory,” as Feser says, “… is supposed to show how thought can be a purely material process.” (243) 

But the sentence MacDonald quotes from my book refers, not to eliminative materialism, but to computationalist theories of the mind.  This is no small mistake, since eliminative materialism, at least in some of its versions, does not try to explain thought but rather denies the existence of thought.  Hence MacDonald’s quotation leaves the false impression that I have fundamentally mischaracterized eliminative materialism.   

MacDonald then says that “It is worthwhile adding that so-called ‘eliminative materialism’ is not as widely supported as Feser’s use of it suggests.”  But in my book I wrote: 

Few materialists are eliminative materialists; it is very definitely a minority view, and most materialists are happy to acknowledge the obvious, viz. that the mind exists. (pp. 235-6).

In the book, I discuss several arguments against computationalism and other attempted materialist explanations of thought.  These include John Searle’s argument about rule-following and algorithms, and an argument against causal theories of intentionality independently developed by Karl Popper and Hilary Putnam.  MacDonald conflates these two arguments, attributing to me the unintelligible mess that results from their conflation (and, into the bargain, leaves the impression that these arguments have something to do with my objections to eliminative materialism specifically, which they don’t).

With respect to the Popper/Putnam argument, MacDonald also claims (toward the end of his post) that “it is quite clear [that] Feser is suggesting that there is no way to delimit the chains of causation involved in perception” without bringing in “God [as] necessary, in the cosmic scheme of things, to bring order out of what would be (without it) the ‘blooming, buzzing confusion.’”  But the argument has nothing whatsoever to do with God.  Certainly Popper and Putnam do not use it to argue for God’s existence, and neither do I.  Rather, I use it to argue that there is no way to individuate the causal chains the materialist needs in order to make causal theories of intentionality work unless he is willing to recognize something like the existence of immanent, unconscious end-directedness of the sort Aristotelians affirm.  Whether this end-directedness ultimately has a divine source is, as I emphasize repeatedly throughout the book, a separate issue.

The trouble here seems to be that MacDonald, like other New Atheists, thinks in clichés.  He already “knows” that all theistic arguments, no matter how seemingly sophisticated, “really” boil down to the silly caricatures one finds in books like Dawkins’ The God Delusion.  Hence when he is confronted by a theist with a complex argument having to do with quite abstract matters like the individuation of causal chains -- an argument which has also been defended by a secular thinker like Popper! -- he simply cannot even understand it without “translating” it into one of the straw men he is comfortable with.  It must really be some lame “god of the gaps” argument in fancy disguise.  (Know your places, theists!  No deviating from the New Atheist script, please!)

As in his earlier post, MacDonald also simply doesn’t understand the points that I make in the book about algorithms.  Contrary to what he insinuates, I do not say that there is no sense in which algorithms might be said to exist in nature.  What I say is that the notion that there are algorithms that are inherent in nature (as opposed to just being useful fictions) can be made sense of only if we acknowledge something like Aristotelian teleology, i.e. immanent and unconscious directedness-to-an-end.   

MacDonald then slips into another meandering discussion of evolution and the role algorithms can be said to play in it -- even though the passages from my book that he is discussing are not about evolution at all, but rather about computationalist theories of the mind!  In general, as in his previous post, MacDonald gives the false impression that my book criticizes evolutionary explanations in biology, when in fact it does nothing of the kind.  As I have said before, what I criticize there are philosophical analyses of the concept of biological function of the sort associated with Millikan and Dennett.  In this connection I cite Jerry Fodor, which leads MacDonald into yet another egregious and even more embarrassing misunderstanding.  For MacDonald launches into an attack on the criticisms of Darwinism that Fodor has presented in What Darwin Got Wrong and elsewhere -- as if this had something to do with what I say in The Last Superstition.  But it has nothing at all to do with it.  The writings from Fodor that I cite are from years before he first developed his recent criticisms of Darwinism; and in part the writings of his I cite do not even concern biology at all, but rather concern controversies in the philosophy of mind.   

Here again we see MacDonald’s apparent incapacity for anything but rote thinking, at least when responding to the arguments of theists.  He “knows” from reading hacks like Dawkins that the debate between theism and atheism is “really” at bottom a debate about evolution.  Hence when some theist presents an argument that has nothing essentially to do with evolution per se -- like the arguments concerning issues in philosophy of biology and philosophy of mind that MacDonald attacks in his latest posts -- MacDonald simply cannot process it unless he can somehow transform it into an attack on evolution.  He never seriously engages my book at all, directing his fire instead at figments of his imagination.

So much for MacDonald’s latest effort.  But I would like to take this opportunity to respond as well to some of the other outrageous claims I have discovered in some of his other remarks.  In one of his combox remarks, MacDonald writes: 

One thing that I marvel at is the fact that Feser can present Aquinas’ arguments as though no one had ever critcised [sic] them before, as if Antony Flew or James [sic] Mackie or Richard Gale or Michael Martin or Kai Neilson [sic], etc. had never written anything on the subject… 

This is yet another one of those statements which, as I put it in my earlier post, “is either an extremely brazen lie -- anyone with access to the book can see that MacDonald’s assertion is preposterous -- or the assertion of a man so very filled with irrational hostility that he cannot allow himself to perceive the words on the page in front of him, lest he be forced to acknowledge that his opponent has actually made a case that needs answering.”   

The standard criticisms of arguments like Aquinas’s include the following: that the principle of causality on which they depend has been undermined by Hume; that they commit a fallacy of composition; that they fail to give any reason for supposing that causes cannot regress to infinity; that they presuppose outmoded theories in physics; that they establish at most a first cause but not a unique or divine first cause; that they arbitrarily exempt the first cause from the need for an explanation; that the Fifth Way amounts to a Paleyan design argument and has been undermined by evolutionary theory; and so on.  These are the sorts of objections writers like the ones MacDonald cites raise against Aquinas, and these (and other objections) are all dealt with at length in The Last Superstition.  I also deal with these and other objections at length in other places, such as Aquinas (which pays special attention to Mackie, since Mackie is an important critic of the Third Way -- an argument I didn’t discuss in The Last Superstition).   

I suppose that hostile readers who are hell-bent on believing MacDonald’s fantasies are not going to be satisfied unless I cut and paste the entire book to show how deeply unjust and dishonest this statement of his is; and even then I am sure some of them will not admit it.  If you are not going to read my book for yourself, though, at least consider that many readers who are unsympathetic to my conclusions would disagree with MacDonald’s bizarre assertion.  As I reported recently, Sir Anthony Kenny -- an agnostic and a prominent critic (indeed perhaps the most prominent critic) of Aquinas’s Five Ways -- has said that my book presents “dense and plausible versions” of Aquinas’s First and Second Ways (even though he ultimately disagrees with them), that “Feser has serious reasons for all of his assertions,” and that “unlike many of the other contributors to the recent theism-atheism debate, [Feser] is always well worth arguing with.”  Can anyone seriously believe that Kenny would say such things if (as MacDonald alleges) I had presented Aquinas’s arguments “as though no one had ever criticized them before”? 

MacDonald also claims that “Feser never justifies his natural law morality, save for suggesting that there is no other foundation for ethics.”  This, too, is simply outrageous.  While it is true that I argue that there is no plausible alternative foundation for ethics -- and I do not merely assert this, but argue for it -- I also devote about twenty pages to making a positive case for natural law, and in particular to showing how moral conclusions of the sort associated with natural law follow from the metaphysical theses defended earlier in the book.  (And yes, in the course of doing so I respond to the so-called “naturalistic fallacy” objection commonly raised against traditional natural law theory.)  I have done the same thing elsewhere (such as in Aquinas), and readers interested in a brief rundown available online can find in here, in the first half of my Social Philosophy and Policy article “Classical Natural Law Theory, Property Rights, and Taxation.”

MacDonald claims further that “[Feser] begin[s] by saying that anyone who disagrees with [him] is deeply irrational and immoral.”  The allegation is preposterous.  Does anyone seriously believe that anyone would begin a book by saying “All of you readers who disagree with me are deeply irrational and immoral”?   In fact you will find on p. 26 of the book the following statement:  

I want to emphasize that I do not deny for a moment that there are secularists, atheists, and naturalists of good will, who are (apart from their rejection of religion) reasonable and morally admirable.  What I deny is that they have or can have – whether they realize this or not – any cogent rational grounds for their trust in reason or morality given their atheism and naturalism, and I deny also that they can rationally remain secularists, atheists, or naturalists if they come to a proper understanding both of the religious views they reject and of the difficulties inherent in their own position.  Of course, I am not so foolish as to think that no reasonable person could possibly fail to agree with me after reading this book.  No single book on any subject, however well-argued and correct in its conclusions, can be expected to convince every reasonable person, certainly not all at once, all by itself, or after a single reading; the way in which we human beings come to believe things is, for good or ill, much more complicated than that. ... Still, I urge secularist readers at least to consider that what I have to say in this book is merely the tip of an intellectual iceberg, and that if they explore more thoroughly the (no doubt far better) works of other writers in the tradition of thought my arguments represent, they will find that they have been far, far too glib in their dismissal of religious belief – and perhaps utterly mistaken in rejecting it. 

Quite obviously, the book is intended as an invitation to debate, not (contrary to MacDonald’s relentless smearing of me as a bigoted authoritarian) an ex cathedra statement demanding mindless assent.  It is true that I also say in the book that “only a (certain kind of) religious view of the world is rational, morally responsible, and sane” and that “an irreligious worldview is accordingly deeply irrational, immoral, and indeed insane.”  But as anyone who given the book a fair reading knows, what I am referring to here are what I take to be the logical implications of certain sets of ideas.  I am not talking about the actual moral or intellectual character of any particular person or persons.  In particular, I argue at length that the thoroughly anti-teleological and mechanistic conception of the natural world that is presupposed by modern atheism entails (even though most materialists do not intend this) a radical eliminativism about both moral values and the mind itself.  It is in that sense that I say that atheism is inherently destructive of reason and morality.  I do not say -- as the quote given above shows, I actually deny -- that all atheists themselves are in fact personally immoral or irrational.  I am, to repeat, talking about the implications of certain ideas.   

Note how beholden to the fallacy of special pleading (or arbitrary double standard) MacDonald once again implicitly is here.  MacDonald claims repeatedly that Catholic morality is “cruel and inhumane,” that it is comparable to Nazism, and so on ad nauseam.  He also characterizes certain individuals in these harsh terms, but clearly his intent is primarily to characterize the ideas rather than the persons.  I assume that if asked he would agree -- that he would say that he does not mean to imply that every Catholic, or even every conservative Catholic, is cruel, inhumane, and Nazi-like.  And I assume he would agree that that would be a fair-minded interpretation of his meaning, even given what he has acknowledged to be his “over the top” statements.  But if so, then if he is consistent he ought to afford me the same courtesy.  He ought to acknowledge that I can characterize certain atheist ideas as “irrational and immoral” without intending thereby to imply that all atheists themselves are irrational and immoral -- especially since I explicitly say in the book that I intended no such implication!

This brings us, finally, to the issue of polemics.  My book is, I readily acknowledge, very polemical.  Not all of my work is, by the way.  I do not think polemics are always appropriate or justifiable.  But for reasons I have explained several times -- such as here and here -- I do think polemics are sometimes justifiable and in some cases even called for.  They are certainly not appropriate or justifiable when dealing with serious atheist writers -- people like J. L. Mackie, Quentin Smith, J. J. C. Smart, J. Howard Sobel, and others.  But I maintain that they are justifiable and indeed called for when dealing with New Atheist writers like the targets of my book -- Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens.  The reason is that these writers are extremely, and unjustly, polemical in their own books on atheism -- unjustly because they demonstrably do not know what they are talking about, as I have shown in The Last Superstition and elsewhere.  They are arrogant and ignorant thugs, and their arrogance and ignorance not only deserves a harsh response, but can only adequately be exposed if one is willing to tell the harsh truth about them.  Hence my polemics are entirely defensive and retaliatory in nature.  I do not throw the first punch.  I am merely responding to the punches thrown by others.

Now MacDonald has admitted that such New Atheist writers “do use a tone of confident hauteur and contempt from time to time — a tone not always justified by events.”  But he still objects to my style in the book as “down and dirty personally abusive.”  Yet consider some of the things MacDonald has said about me.  If you scroll through the (as of this writing) eight blog posts and numerous combox comments he has written about me, you will find that MacDonald characterizes me and/or my work as “dishonest” and “nasty”; that he makes reference to my alleged  “arrogance,” “contempt for ordinary people,” “hardness of heart,” and “the immorality and inhumanity to which Feser’s reason drives him”; that he calls me an “extremist” who is “swimming in a polluted stream”; avers that “one can scarcely call [Feser] a philosopher,” that “it is hard not to believe that the man is himself not psychologically unhinged,” that my book is a “study in mental pathology,” and that he finds my “moral thought rebarbative and in many places plainly repulsive.”  In a couple of particularly classy moments, MacDonald says that “there is a reason that Feser is teaching at a small college” and that “Catholics got a bad bargain, I’m afraid, when they got him.”  And then, of course, there is his comparison of me to Heinrich Himmler.

Now if all of that is not “down and dirty personally abusive,” I don’t know what is.  And it is all because of stuff I said, not about him, but about Dawkins and Co, who had themselves been extremely polemical and to whose polemics I was merely replying.  To be sure, I have since also been aggressive in response to MacDonald himself -- you see, being compared to Heinrich Himmler can make a guy a little testy, and in any case I thought (and still think) that MacDonald was asking for it.  And yet MacDonald, while willing in his latest remarks to acknowledge that “comparing the pope” to Himmler was “over the top,” retracts none of the venom he has directed towards me personally (and conveniently ignores the fact that it was me, and not the pope, whom he had originally compared to Himmler).

Now I’m a big boy and I’ve had more prominent and capable people than MacDonald say even nastier things about me.  The point has nothing to do with MacDonald’s injustice to me; and if the pope somehow knows or cares what MacDonald thinks of him, I’d rather that he get MacDonald’s apology than that I get it.  The point, rather, is this.  MacDonald’s personal abusiveness has led him into yet another logical bind, yet another fallacy -- “one for the road,” as it were.  In particular, it has led him into yet another instance of the fallacy of special pleading.  For MacDonald has claimed that my alleged “personal abusiveness” is not justified even as a response to the obnoxiousness of the New Atheists.  (It seems that for MacDonald, the only response a theist can justifiably give to the abuse heaped upon him by New Atheists is that of Kevin Bacon in Animal House.)

Yet though MacDonald will not tolerate my alleged abusiveness, he is quite willing, as we have seen, to heap personal abuse on me, apparently on the grounds that my behavior has justified such abuse.  And thus we have another of MacDonald’s arbitrary double standards.  If I use polemics in retaliation either against the New Atheists or against MacDonald’s personal abusiveness toward me, that is very, very naughty.  But if MacDonald uses such polemics, that is fine -- indeed, it is OK for MacDonald to use them even though he was the one to initiate polemics in his exchange with me.  (I only got rough with him, after all, after he compared me to Himmler.  No doubt some will allege that I was nasty to MacDonald in my earliest remarks on Coyne, but I have already answered that canard.) 

But it is worse than that.  MacDonald constantly alleges -- falsely, as I have shown -- that I merely heap abuse on my opponents and do not present serious arguments against them.  And yet how does he propose dealing with people like me?  In one of his combox comments, after comparing Catholicism to Nazism some more, MacDonald says something very telling: 

The only way, in the end, to defeat that sort of thing is ridicule.  Feser is not going to be convinced by argument… 

And in a more recent comment he says: 

I admit to a [sic] some resentment towards Feser… until Feser can change his tone, I have no intention of responding to him in any detail at all, nor do I feel the need to…  it is only fair that [I] pay him back in some of his own coin. 

And so we come full circle.  Or MacDonald does, anyway.  His problem with me, he says, is that I ridicule others instead of trying to convince them with argument, which I should do even if they have themselves been nasty.  And the rational, reality-based, New Atheist response to this alleged behavior, MacDonald recommends…  is to ridicule me instead of trying to convince me with argument.   

So, is MacDonald a hypocrite?   Yes, I think he is that.  But mainly, I think, he is just a very bitter and confused man.   

But I would rather not end on a sour note.  While telling us that he intends to comment no further on my book, MacDonald says that he is “willing to discuss with [Feser], but I will not respond to the kind of hostility that I witnessed on his blog.”  I feel the same way.  I am unwilling to respond positively to someone who relentlessly and egregiously misrepresents my views, and who indulges in unjustifiable and unprovoked invective -- say, by comparing me to Heinrich Himmler.  But I would always be willing to discuss with anyone who sincerely wished at last to put such things aside.

76 comments:

Tom Esteban said...

Great response, Dr.Feser.

Never the less, you're falling right into their trap. In discussion with New Atheists I've noticed that one can never, ever, get to the issue at hand. One is always dealing with red herrings and semi-related issues and eventually it comes to the point where you have to reflect on the discussion and say, "Hold on, what were we talking about after all?".

You can spend hours, days and months trying to show them why a certain point is irrelevant, or what in fact you did say rather than what you didn't. The problem with New Atheists is that it is undeniably an emotional, groundless and irrational kind of atheism --- which invariably means you'll be dragged into the same kind of pissing contests.

I admire your tenacity, and I think that you're doing a good job of showing these guys up and exposing them for what they are. But there is always a danger, especially for us as Catholics, in what motivates us and in what way there can be resolve. The notion of fraternal correction has its place in philosophy I believe, and the idea of fraternal correction is that the one being corrected should be open to correction. If not, "shake off the dust from your feet".

Anonymous said...

Well. That was quite the ass-beating.

I wonder if Coyne will back off his endorsement of MacDonald's expertise in this area. I mean, that's what originally touched all of this off, right?

Anonymous said...

Coyne would first have to understand that ad hominems mixed with red herrings don't constitute an argument before he would back off in his support of MacDonald.

Matthew G said...

In before trolls.

Edward Feser said...

Hello Anonymous 1,

Well. That was quite the ass-beating.

You should see the stuff I decided to take out.

I wonder if Coyne will back off his endorsement of MacDonald's expertise in this area. I mean, that's what originally touched all of this off, right?

Yup. I would likely have left MacDonald alone had Coyne not loudly paraded him around. Coyne owes the poor guy an apology.

Hello Tom,

The point isn't to convince the hard core New Atheist types. They are beyond reason. The point is to show atheists of good will, and reasonable people who are on the fence, just how irrational and dishonest the most vocal people really are.

And MacDonald has provided a service in giving us an absolutely unambiguous test case. Ask a New Atheist what he thinks of MacDonald's "critique" of my book. If he says "Oh man, c'mon, please don't bring that up," then you know you're dealing with an honest man. If he insists that MacDonald really socked it to me, then you know you've got a psychotic Kool-Aid-drinking tinfoil hat wearer on your hands and had better keep an eye on your daughters and farm animals when they are in his presence.

Hello Anonymous 2,

Quite!

Off to bed now...

Edward Feser said...

Oh, and hello Matthew!

OK, off to bed for real...

Will said...

MacDonald should've heeded Bill V's warning that Feser stands for Filosophical Erudition Sans Excessive Restraint.

Felix said...

Eric MacDonald is a classic case of what happens when you go into a fight driven by nothing but anger. New Atheists are again exposed for who and what they really are: a mixture of arrogance and ignorance, bigots that has nothing to offer, and hazads to one's intellectual well being. New atheists use distaractions and insults for two reasons: One, the position of theists are so well entrenched that the only way you think you can get to them is through insults and red herrings, or two, your own New Atheist meme is so weak that you need all the noise in the world to beef up your own feeble position. Like I said, the only reson why Prof Feser seems to acquire stalkers is because he's really hitting them where it hurts, so please keep up the good work sir. It might not be intellectually rewarding, but one shouldn't shy from bashing New Atheists, especially if they offer themselves up so willingly!

Aquinas3000 said...

Incidentally I just bought both Aquinas and The Last Superstition today!

beng said...

I'm going to say this in big bold word, because this is important:

MOST ATHEIST NEEDS TO BE RIDICULE BECAUSE THEY BECAME ATHEIST TO FEEL SUPERIOR OVER US SKY-DADDY-PRAYING-CAVE-DWELLERS. BY RIDICULING THEM (and showing rationally how irrational they are) WE KNOCK THEM OF THEIR HIGH HORSE THEY'RE SO PROUD OF

In the comment box from the previous reply to MacDonald's "criticism" a converted atheist mentioned that he became atheist to feel superior. It's super easy. Just deny God and then you suddenly member of the elite few who have reach enlightenment.

So, the BEST way to "cure" these deluded persons is to ridicule them. Show them who's boss. Being a pushover will only reinforced their false sense of intellectual superiority.

This is why I love Feser's tone in his book (TLS, I have Aquinas but haven't read it [btw, Mr. Feser, "Aquinas" is not St. Thomas' last name, it's his birthplace). Those kind of atheist deserves all the nastiness. It's a good medicine for them (remember the "brood of viper" verses).

Steve Ruble said...

Dr. Feser,

Or page |x| of my copy of your book, you write:

For however well-meaning this or that individual liberal secularist may be, his creed is, I maintain (and to paraphrase Dawkins's infamous description of critics of evolution) "ignorant, stupid, insane, and wicked."[Emphasis in original]

What Dawkins actually wrote was the following:

It is absolutely safe to say that if you meet somebody who claims not to believe in evolution, that person is ignorant, stupid or insane (or wicked, but I'd rather not consider that).

Given your insistence on being properly quoted - which I think is quite reasonable, of course - are you willing to stand by your "paraphrase" of Dawkins's statement? A person who read your "paraphrase" could quite easily come away thinking that Dawkins said something similar, when in fact he explicitly does not (actually, he goes on to explain that he is hopeful about the future of the public understanding of science because he finds that the majority of people who oppose evolution are merely ignorant of the case which can be made for it, and that few people fall into the other categories he names). I'm sure that you can recognize the importance of the difference between "and" and "or", and I'm sure that you had access to the source of the quote, because you provide a citation in your book. What I can't understand is how you could think your "paraphrase" is an honest or respectable representation of Dawkins's actual position. Can you provide an explanation?

Bobcat said...

Hi Steve,

I don't think Feser should have any problem standing by what he wrote. Although generally a paraphrase is a rewording of an original passage in a way meant to preserve its meaning, sometimes people use "paraphrase" in a way more akin to an appropriation of another's manner of expression in order to convey a different point.

For example, to paraphrase Dawkins, it would be child abuse to teach children an overly literal understanding of what "paraphrase" means.

Steve Ruble said...

In the same vein, on page 15 you write:

As the late David Stove has argued at length, Dawkins's famous claim that we are all "manipulated" by our "selfish genes" could only be both true and interesting if interpreted, absurdly, as a literal attribution of superhuman intelligence and cunning to what are quite obviously mindless tiny bits of biological matter - that is, as an ascription of godlike powers to genes.

Oddly enough, and pace Stove, many people have concluded that "Dawkins's famous claim" is both true and interesting without any absurd attributions. It might be worth your while to Google Dawkins's response to Mary Midgley - a philosopher who makes the same mistakes as Stove - to get a sense of the problems with Stove's position. As Dawkins puts it:

In effect I am saying: "Provided I define selfishness in a particular way an oak tree, or a gene, may legitimately be described as selfish". Now a philosopher could reasonably say: "I don’t like your definition, but given that you adopt it I can see what you mean when you call a gene selfish". But no reasonable philosopher would say: "I don’t like your definition, therefore I shall interpret your statement as though you were using my definition of selfishness; by my definition your concept of the selfish gene is nonsense, therefore it is nonsense".

You quite frequently re-iterate the claim that critics of Aquinas's metaphysics fail to take the time to understand the conceptual framework and technical definitions which Aquinas uses in his reasoning. How is it, then, that you feel comfortable dismissing Dawkins's position based on what is quite clearly a misunderstanding of technical terms?

Steve Ruble said...

Really, Bobcat? Do you really think that it's "appropriation of another's manner of expression" to remove one "or", to convert a second "or" to "and", to remove a parenthetical clause and replace it with first word of that clause, and finally to surround the resulting monstrosity - which now has a meaning quite opposed to the original - in quotation marks?

In your example, it's fairly obvious which part of the paraphrase does, in fact, differ from the original; certainly, no one who understands the idea of paraphrase (in the second sense you note) is likely to come away with the idea that Dawkins actually thinks that teaching children an overly literal understanding of the word "paraphrase" is child abuse, although they may think (correctly) that Dawkins has at some point described teaching something to children is child abuse. But given Feser's "paraphrase", which reader could possibly be expected to conclude from the given text that in fact Dawkins explicitly does not describe critics of evolution as "ignorant, stupid, insane, and wicked"?

In fact, I see that JD Walters seems to have made exactly that mistake - the mistake of thinking that the "paraphrase" was representative of what Dawkins actually wrote - in a comment on the post responding to his review of TLS. Of course, I can't say whether he acquired his particular mangling of the quote from TLS or from some other source, but certainly Feser - or anyone here - could have taken the opportunity to correct his misunderstanding at that time, if they actually cared about fairly representing the views of their opponents.

Verbose Stoic said...

Steve,

I think you're missing how the term "uninteresting" is used by philosophers. Dawkins' use of "selfish" and "manipulated" either maps to the ones relevant to, say, the moral issues like whether or not we can actually act altruistically. If his uses do map, then it does seem that Dawkins would have to be arguing that there is some sort of conscious manipulation and conscious selfishness since that's what the terms imply in that context. And if they can't be applied there because they'd equivocate, then he isn't using the same terms and so no matter how interesting it would be to biology, "selfish" in his description is not one that would be of interest to the moral debates.

Note that I'm saying this without having read either book. This dilemma is taken from Hobbes Psychological/Ethical Egoism arguments, and is the charge levelled against him. I fail to see why Dawkins should be immune to it, and thus it is conceivable that he faces the same dilemma.

Mr Veale said...

Dr Fesrer

On the issue of polemics - I did mention on MacDonald's blog that he could have argued that they were out of place in TLS. That was because TLS was, above all, a plea for intellectual humility and a criticism of modernist pretensions.
Now that would have been a valid criticism. I also understand that you have a valid defence. The New Atheists attempt to intimidate undergraduates into intellectual compliance. So their rhetoric does need to be met with an equal and opposite force.
I was suggesting to MacDonald that this was the sort of criticism that a serious reviewer would have offered. I'm not entirely sure if TLS would have been better or worse without the rhetoric. (The "Letter to a Stanford Graduate" was hilarious!)
You might or might not have noticed my comments on MacDonalds blog, but if you did, I hope that you didn't think that I was justifying his venom in any way whatsoever.

Graham

Michael said...

Steve Ruble,

Question: inclusive "or" or exclusive "or"?

Really this all seems nit-picking as both quotes say negative things about opponents.

I'm just excited that it seems that the whole series of posts on MacDonald are over. Now we can expect to see more substantial posts.

Steve Ruble said...

Verbose Stoic,

The Selfish Gene is about biology - specifically, it describes the gene-centric paradigm for reasoning about evolution - and the technical terms used within it are defined as technical terms in the text. Of course transplanting them willy-nilly into another discourse which has its own technical definitions is going to cause equivocation if not incoherence. You could as reasonably transplant a trigonometry text into a conversation about morality and then declare that it could only be true and interesting if interpreted, absurdly, as claiming that "right" triangles are morally superior and "obtuse" angles are stupid. But that has absolutely no bearing on whether the trigonometry text is true and interesting to people interested in trigonometry and who understand that words can be given specific definitions in a specific context.

Steve Ruble said...

Michael,

Inclusive, obviously, unless you think there might be something about being ignorant which would preclude being stupid. The point of Dawkins's statement, however - and this is quite obvious in context and even more so in a more recent article, Ignorance is No Crime - is that the empirical evidence for evolution (not natural selection, note) is so overwhelming that the only plausible reasons for rejecting it are not knowing about the evidence (ignorance), inability to understand the evidence (stupidity or insanity), or deliberate, conscious rejection of the evidence (wickedness).

Really this all seems nit-picking as both quotes say negative things about opponents.

Really? Being ignorant is a negative thing? I guess we're all in trouble, then, because I'm pretty sure that we're all ignorant about an enormous number of things.

Incidentally, thank you for providing a real live example of Feser being misinterpreted by someone who has - I assume - no motivation for misinterpreting him. Feser says, in the post above,

But as anyone who given the book a fair reading knows, what I am referring to here are what I take to be the logical implications of certain sets of ideas. I am not talking about the actual moral or intellectual character of any particular person or persons.

And of course, in the passage I quoted from TLS he emphasizes that he is describing creeds rather than people. But here you are, Michael, innocently concluding that Feser is saying "negative things about opponents" rather than about their creeds. Is it really that easy to misunderstand him?

Anonymous said...

LOLin'.

Four posts and hundreds of characters on quoting "and" instead of "or" from some snarky remark.

We really live in the Age of Aspergers.

(Ed, I promise I'll stop trolling one day)

Verbose Stoic said...

Steve,

As I said, I've read neither, but I was under the impression that Dawkins used that notion of "Selfish Genes" to enter into the discussions of altruism and reciprocal altruism, and that's where the stronger notion of selfish is required. And that's what philosophers mean when they call it "uninteresting". No one, I think, ever tried to argue that his notion wasn't interesting to biology, but at most that using the term "selfish" added notion because it was at best misleading -- since it was not using the term as normally understood for no real reason -- or that it risked equivocation if the meanings were intended to be the same.

Bobcat said...

Hi Steve,

Yes, I think it's within the boundaries of acceptable paraphrase. Let's look again at what Feser wrote:

For however well-meaning this or that individual liberal secularist may be, his creed is, I maintain (and to paraphrase Dawkins's infamous description of critics of evolution) "ignorant, stupid, insane, and wicked."

I think there's two ways of reading this passage. On the first way, which is your way, you read it like this: "I, Edward Feser, remind the reader that Dawkins said that critics of evolution were ignorant, stupid, insane, and wicked. As it turns out, though, it is the advocates of Dawkins's secular creed that are ignorant, stupid, insane, and wicked."

I read the passage in a different way. "Dawkins was notorious among critics of evolution for claiming that, to be a critic of evolution, you have to be ignorant, insane, or wicked (or all three). However, I, Edward Feser, say that to be an advocate of Dawkins's view, you have to be ignorant, insane, AND wicked."

I think my interpretation is the more plausible one. Why? Because in order for Feser's claim to work, the reader of his book has to be familiar with Dawkins's claim in the first place. In my own case, anyway, I was. And so I thought that Feser's paraphrase of Dawkins was a neat case not only of turnaround but of elevation.

That said, it's certainly possible that a reader of the book may have misremembered Dawkins's phrase, and known only that he said something derisive about critics of evolution while not remembering quite what. And if that reader has a literal enough understanding of paraphrase, she's going to think that what Dawkins said was that critics of evolution are stupid, insane, ignorant, AND wicked. And then, that reader might form a negative opinion of Dawkins based on what she's taken from Feser's quote. And then, Dawkins's reputation might be unjustly sullied because it turns out that Dawkins wasn't saying anything quite that harsh; I mean, he wasn't saying that critics of evolution are stupid, insane, ignorant, AND wicked; he was saying that they are ignorant, insane, OR wicked, which is of course much tamer.

But honestly, all the above seems like a worst case scenario, and even the worst case scenario doesn't seem bad to me. Feser could have, I suppose, taken pains to make sure that this misinterpretation of his rhetorical maneuver didn't arise, but it would have really disrupted the flow of the book, plus it would have been a weird departure from the polemical spirit of the book (and I trust you won't find similar instances of caution in the new atheist tomes to which Feser's work was a response).

James said...

Now we can expect to see more substantial posts.

But will they be subsistent substantial posts?

Anonymous said...

And so Steve Ruble, seeing the rubble that remains of MacDonald's argument, panics and decides that this must not stand. "The others have fallen - and so it falls to me to stand up against the Feserian threat!"

His superpower is activated! Calling upon his years of internet debating, he unsheathes his ultimate weapon - the demon-sword Inconsequentia! A blade capable of splitting hairs so fine, so meaningless, it can even result in multi-response testiness over the use of "and" or "or" in a misunderstanding borne of his own misreading!

Stay tuned for more excitement!

hyperdeath said...

Anonymous said...
We really live in the Age of Aspergers.

If you must resort to personal abuse, kindly use insults which don't stigmatize and trivialize mental disorders.

Anonymous said...

Hyperdeath,

Point taken. From now on, I'll use Charlton's "clever-sillies" hypothesis. Much better.

Matthew G said...

"Oh, and hello Matthew!

OK, off to bed for real..."

It's weird to wake up in the morning in europe, check updates on blogs and then have people tell you they are going to bed.

Edward Feser said...

Steve,

Re: the selfish gene theory, I think you missed the point of my criticism. The problem isn't with the word "selfish," specifically. The problem is with any language that both (a) is intended to do real explanatory work and is not just a cute metaphor, and at the same time (b) implies intentionality, or even just unconscious "directedness-to-an-end" of any sort. An Aristotelian can make use of such notions, but an avowed naturalist like Dawkins cannot, at least not if he wants to remain a naturalist.

So, if Dawkins wants to say "You know what, I think Aristotle is right to this extent -- some natural phenomena really do have a kind of built-in unconscious directedness-to-an-end. I offer what I call selfish genes as an example" -- then I would have no beef with him. There would still be the question of whether the empirical aspect of the theory is correct, but philosophically I think that would be kosher. (As I've said many times, whether this directedness-to-an-end requires in turn a divine explanation is a separate question. I think it does, but there are Aristotelians who do not.)

Re: the "and" and "or" stuff, I don't have anything to add to what Bobcat has already said. (Really, that's the best you've got?)

Graham,

No problem at all.

Steve Ruble said...

Edward,

Thanks, I think I understand your position a little better. However, I don't see why you conclude that Dawkins uses language that "implies intentionality, or even just unconscious 'directedness-to-an-end' of any sort." Of course, if you ignore his careful spelling out of what he means by "selfish" and "altruistic" as technical terms, and you ignore the care he takes to always tie illustrative, somewhat metaphorical descriptions back to fundamental, identifiable efficient causes, you could get the wrong idea... but of course, if you ignore Aquinas's definitions of "act" and "potency" you can get the wrong idea about his position too, right? I would think that you would be more sensitive to the need to understand the language and concepts of a position before attacking it.

Re: the "and" and "or" stuff, again, I'd expect you to be more sensitive to the importance of properly representing your opponents' positions. You certainly do go on and on about it when it happens to you.

Edward Feser said...

Hello Steve,

Re: the first point, what you are saying is that you think I am wrong to hold that Dawkins' position really ultimately entails a commitment to some kind of teleology. OK, but that doesn't show that I've misrepresented him (if you were implying that I had misrepresented him). Saying "Dawkins says X and I think X entails Y" is not the same as saying "Dawkins says Y."

Re: the second point, the thing is, for the reasons Bobcat has given, I don't think my paraphrase really misrepresents Dawkins in the first place, and I don't see that you've really responded to Bobcat's points.

Edward Feser said...

BTW, for readers who are interested, if you look at the combox to MacDonald's most recent post at his blog (which he posted today), you will find that he and I have been having a (so far quite civil) exchange.

Steve Ruble said...

Bobcat,

Your interpretation is obviously not correct, nor is the interpretation you attribute to me, because in both cases you represent Feser as calling his opponents "ignorant, stupid, insane, and wicked" when he makes it very clear that he is talking about his opponents creeds. Or is it very clear? Both you and Michael, in defending Feser, have attributed to him a much more aggressive position than he claims to be taking... what, do you think, is the significance of that fact?

Since you seem to have missed this fact, let me remind you that saying that someone is ignorant is not an insult. There's no ignominy in never having learned about the weight of evidence for evolution; it's just a fact that many people are ignorant of that evidence. On the other hand, saying that critics of evolution are "ignorant, stupid, insane, and wicked" certainly sounds like an insult - and would be false, as well - so it sure is a good thing that Dawkins never said any such thing.

Feser could have, I suppose, taken pains to make sure that this misinterpretation of his rhetorical maneuver didn't arise, but it would have really disrupted the flow of the book...

What, really? It would disrupt the flow of the book to do something other than misrepresent someone?

...plus it would have been a weird departure from the polemical spirit of the book...

I'm not sure Feser would appreciate your claim that preventing misunderstanding in his readers would be a "weird departure" from the spirit of the book.

Steve Ruble said...

Edward,

You wrote,
"...the thing is, for the reasons Bobcat has given, I don't think my paraphrase really misrepresents Dawkins in the first place..."

I don't think I understand what you mean by "misrepresents" in that statement. I tend to think that "misrepresentation" consists in causing your audience to think that something is the case when it is not. On that definition, I think it's pretty clear that you're misrepresenting Dawkins; I think it's quite likely that anyone who read that passage without knowing the original context would come away with the impression that Dawkins actually wrote the words in quotes. In fact, as I've already pointed out, it's hard to imagine what else such an ignorant reader could reasonably be expected to take away from that passage.

What do you think a reader - one who had not read Dawkins's 1989 work - would be most likely to think after reading that passage?

Steve Ruble said...

Edward,

I'm not accusing you of misrepresenting Dawkins in the "selfish gene" passage, I'm pointing out that you're dismissing his scientific theory on the basis of a misunderstanding of the technical language he defines and uses in The Selfish Gene. This is especially true if you really do rely at all on David Stove, who - if the parts of Darwinian Fairytales available online are at all representative - was ludicrously off base in his criticisms. I think it's ironic that in a book in which you charge so many people with a lack of understanding of technical terminology and concepts (often quite fairly, I might add) you take the time to snipe at someone you dislike while exhibiting a similar lack of understanding of technical terminology in their field of expertise.

Bobcat said...

Steve,

You wrote,

“Your interpretation is obviously not correct, nor is the interpretation you attribute to me, because in both cases you represent Feser as calling his opponents "ignorant, stupid, insane, and wicked" when he makes it very clear that he is talking about his opponents creeds. Or is it very clear? Both you and Michael, in defending Feser, have attributed to him a much more aggressive position than he claims to be taking... what, do you think, is the significance of that fact?”
You’re right, I should have said that Feser was calling the liberal, secular creed “ignorant, stupid, insane, and wicked”, not liberal secularists. It’s certainly possible to adhere to an ignorant, stupid, insane, and wicked creed without being ignorant, stupid, insane, and wicked.
As for the significance of the fact that I accidentally attributed a more aggressive position to Feser than he in fact was defending, I don’t think there’s much. Here’s why: when I write comments on blog posts, I don’t put the same effort into precision that I put into writing a journal article. The reason is not that precision isn’t important, but it takes a lot of time—for me, anyway—to be as precise as I’d like, and I don’t find it to be worth it to go over my posts several times before posting. I take it, though, that you think there is some significance to the fact that I made this error. What do you think the significance is?

“Since you seem to have missed this fact, let me remind you that saying that someone is ignorant is not an insult. There's no ignominy in never having learned about the weight of evidence for evolution; it's just a fact that many people are ignorant of that evidence. On the other hand, saying that critics of evolution are "ignorant, stupid, insane, and wicked" certainly sounds like an insult - and would be false, as well - so it sure is a good thing that Dawkins never said any such thing.”
I agree that calling someone ignorant is not always an insult, although much of the time it is meant to be one. And Dawkins, of course, thinks that the majority of people who don’t believe that we evolved from less complex life-forms are ignorant. That said, the main point still stands: in order to understand Feser’s point, you have to know what he’s paraphrasing. And if you don’t know what he’s paraphrasing, you won’t really appreciate the full rhetorical force of his point. The only case that is at all worrisome is for people who have a vague recollection of what Dawkins said, but don’t remember whether he said an “and” or an “or”, and so, relying purely on Feser’s paraphrase, take what he said to be an “and”, and then use that to form a negative opinion of Dawkins, or to solidify their already negative opinion of Dawkins. But this really isn’t that worrisome. The mistake they’re making is their own, not Feser’s – as I said, I remembered what Dawkins said correctly, and so I appreciated the force of Feser’s paraphrase as it was intended. If I hadn’t remembered Dawkins correctly, and also had an overly narrow understanding of what “paraphrase” means, and then used Feser’s paraphrase of Dawkins as my way of recollecting what Dawkins said, even though Google is fully available to me, well, why is that Feser’s fault? Why isn’t that my fault?

hyperdeath said...

Edward:
So, if Dawkins wants to say "You know what, I think Aristotle is right to this extent -- some natural phenomena really do have a kind of built-in unconscious directedness-to-an-end. I offer what I call selfish genes as an example"...

I think Dawkins would object to the (highlighted) notion that any natural phenomenon, including life itself, works to an end. Instead (to risk putting words in his mouth) life is a chemical reaction starting from some happenstance where a particular arrangement of atoms catalysed the formation of a similar arrangements, which produced further arrangements and so on. Some arrangements produce more copies than others, and so they come to predominate. The selfish gene debate amounts to what these arrangements are in the biological sense. The selfish gene makes the case that the answer is genes, and not whole organisms. Despite the title (which I think he regrets) no form of purpose (unconscious or otherwise) is required.

Bobcat said...

Steve,

Going on, I wrote:

“Feser could have, I suppose, taken pains to make sure that this misinterpretation of his rhetorical maneuver didn't arise, but it would have really disrupted the flow of the book...

To which you responded:

“What, really? It would disrupt the flow of the book to do something other than misrepresent someone?”

Again, I disagree that Feser misrepresented Dawkins, but yes, explaining just how you intend your rhetoric to be interpreted rather than letting the rhetoric speak for itself disrupts the flow of writing. Let me give you an example. Compare:

“A horse walks into a bar. The bartender asks, ‘Why the long face?’”

to:

“A horse walks into a bar. The bartender asks, ‘Why the long face?’ Which is a funny remark, because ‘why the long face?’ is ambiguous between ‘you look sad; what’s the source of your sadness?’ and ‘you have a physically long face’, which is in fact true of horses, at least in relation to the faces of human beings. At any rate, the joke is funny because it trades on that ambiguity.”

Clearly, the second version of the joke – which at least has the decency to avoid causing any pain to anyone who feels left out of the joke – is inferior to the first version, at least qua joke. (I should say, I find the second version funnier, but only because of a long history that has established what jokes are like; the second one amuses me more than the first because I've heard the first, and the humor of the second one depends on the fact that the joke-teller is so tone-deaf that he thinks his explanation won't utterly dessicate the funniness of the original joke. But I digress.)

Finally, you wrote:

“I'm not sure Feser would appreciate your claim that preventing misunderstanding in his readers would be a "weird departure" from the spirit of the book.”

There’s only so much misunderstanding Feser can prevent. Even if he utterly sacrificed all enjoyability to prevent misunderstanding, it would still happen. Making the book 90% less enjoyable in order to prevent 0.5% more misunderstandings is not a good trade-off, in my mind.

Bobcat said...

Steve wrote:

"I tend to think that 'misrepresentation' consists in causing your audience to think that something is the case when it is not."

To paraphrase Steve Ruble, this definition is obviously incorrect, because a perfectly clear writer, writing a perfectly clear sentence that asserts a true statement S, can nonetheless cause his audience to think that ~S even though he clearly asserted S. Eric MacDonald is a good example of this when reading Edward Feser's The Last Superstition, as the post to which this is a comment shows.

Bobcat said...

All right, no more posts from me. Ed can take care of himself much better than I can take care of him.

And I have to get to work.

Jinzang said...

In effect I am saying: "Provided I define selfishness in a particular way an oak tree, or a gene, may legitimately be described as selfish".

I'm reminded of Abraham Lincoln's joke:

"How many legs does a dog have if you call its tail a leg? Four. Calling a tail a leg doesn't make it a leg."

Anonymous said...

hd,

Despite the title (which I think he regrets) no form of purpose (unconscious or otherwise) is required.

I don't think you understand the sense of direction being referred to here. What you described is not at odds with formal/final causes as I understand Ed and others to suggest them - in fact, it's relying on that sort of framing without you intending it. The outcomes of natural selection are just yet more ends a given process is aimed towards.

Anonymous said...

BTW, for readers who are interested, if you look at the combox to MacDonald's most recent post at his blog (which he posted today), you will find that he and I have been having a (so far quite civil) exchange.

Well, of course you're having a civil exchange. You just handed him his ass in way after way, you demonstrated he doesn't know what he's talking about on these subjects, that he's been relying on reflex, dishonesty, and insult to power his argument. You sliced him up.

The only recourse for him now is to try and be civil and get a "okay, Erin, you're not too bad after all" pat on the head out of you. Because you've left him with nowhere to go but up.

I wouldn't even bother to spend time talking with him until he gives a proper apology and withdraws his comments. But do what you will, you're the guy who clearly knows what he's doing here.

djindra said...

Steve Ruble,

Re: Feser's, "For however well-meaning this or that individual liberal secularist may be, his creed is, I maintain (and to paraphrase Dawkins's infamous description of critics of evolution) "ignorant, stupid, insane, and wicked."

You commented,

"A person who read your 'paraphrase' could quite easily come away thinking that Dawkins said something similar, when in fact he explicitly does not "

Thanks for the tip. I hadn't had time to track down Dawkins original but did so. And you are correct. Feser misrepresents Dawkins. The more I check up on Feser the more hypocritical I find him. He whines about being misrepresented then ups the ante with a heightened misrepresentations of his own.

Furthermore, we should keep in mind Dawkin's limited scope compared to Feser's broad scope. Feser is not merely looking for a little classroom time as a cure for a poorly taught subject. He's demanding "classical theism and traditional morality of Western Civilization" be "restored to their rightful place as the guiding principles of Western thought, society, and politics." His bogeyman is a specter called "secular liberalism." And it's not simply wrong, it's "a clear and present danger to the stability of any society, and to the eternal destiny of any soul. that falls under its maligned influence."

That "clear and present danger" makes it clear that this is an authoritarian mission. With these ominous traitors infiltrating the ranks, Feser can admit he demands much more than a "place at the table." He doesn't sugar coat things so I won't either. His rhetoric sounds totalitarian.

djindra said...

"It is true that I also say in the book that 'only a (certain kind of) religious view of the world is rational, morally responsible, and sane' and that 'an irreligious worldview is accordingly deeply irrational, immoral, and indeed insane.'"

Suppose I say a religious worldview is deeply irrational, immoral, and indeed insane. Suppose I say Christianity is inherently destructive of reason and morality? What, exactly does that accomplish? It's clearly emotional nonsense just like Feser's is clearly emotional nonsense. TLS does not in any way make this case against an irreligious worldview and that's the only reason for including the inane, shrill rhetoric. It plays to the choir. Maybe they'll even buy the book.

beng said...

If one really dislike djindra's posts or any other troll in general and reeeallly want to get back at him for what he said...... IGNORE HIM!!!

Ignoring a troll HURTS him. Makes him uncomfortable. Makes him unable to sleep at night.

Trust me, it does.

Know this and feel good and satisfied about yourselves cause you have ignored him because it does get to him.

Have a nice day.

hyperdeath said...

Anonymous said:
I don't think you understand the sense of direction being referred to here. What you described is not at odds with formal/final causes as I understand Ed and others to suggest them - in fact, it's relying on that sort of framing without you intending it. The outcomes of natural selection are just yet more ends a given process is aimed towards.

Which raises the question, what is the final cause of a chemical replicator? My answer would be: the formation of an object capable of being the formal efficient and final causes of a similar object.

I took Feser's hypothetical Dawkins quote "...directedness-to-an-end" to imply the non-Dawkinsian viewpoint that replicators have a final cause beyond replication for the sake of replication. It also implied the kind of forward-planning that Dawkins explicitly rejects.

Steve Ruble said...

Bobcat,

I'm not sure why you're focusing on how difficult it would have been for Feser to have clarified his rhetoric to avoid giving the impression of misrepresenting Dawkins's comment. There's an easy solution: don't put in such misleading rhetoric in the first place! If Feser simply wanted to describe the creed of his opponents as "ignorant, stupid, insane, and wicked", he could have gone ahead and done so, without attributing such a view to Dawkins at all.

You are right about my definition of "misrepresentation" being too vague. Perhaps a better definition would be: claiming that someone holds a position or makes a clam when in fact they do not.

If I hadn’t remembered Dawkins correctly, and also had an overly narrow understanding of what “paraphrase” means, and then used Feser’s paraphrase of Dawkins as my way of recollecting what Dawkins said, even though Google is fully available to me, well, why is that Feser’s fault? Why isn’t that my fault?

That doesn't really interact with my point at all. Once more: Consider the case of a person who has never read Dawkins's original article, but has read Feser's "paraphrase". What do you think such a person is most likely to think Dawkins actually wrote? Do you really expect a reader to read the quoted "paraphrase" and reason, "Feser said this is a paraphrase, so probably what Dawkins actually wrote is something which is logically quite different than the text within quotation marks here," or do you think they might be more likely to think that Dawkins wrote something which was logically similar to the quoted text?

More generally, how far would you be willing to push your standard for deciding whether or not someone is misrepresenting someone else's position? For example, say a blogger selectively quoted Feser and described his position in such a way that a reader vaguely familiar with Feser came away with the impression that Feser rejected aspects of evolutionary theory. Why would that be the blogger's fault? Why wouldn't it be the reader's fault?

Steve Ruble said...

Bobcat,

Finally, here's why I think the fact that you and Michael both wrote as if Feser was attacking people rather than creeds is interesting: there seems to be strong support around here for the hypothesis that MacDonald is so enraged by Feser and his conclusions that he either deliberately misrepresents Feser or is incapable of properly understanding him. It seems to me, however, that if supporters of Feser find it so easy to misunderstand or accidentally misrepresent Feser, then it might be reasonably suggested that perhaps the problem does not lie only in the rage of MacDonald, but also in the form or effect of Feser's rhetoric in general. At the very least, it demonstrates that one does not need to be ignorant, stupid, insane, and wicked to misunderstand what Feser is trying to say.

djindra said...

beng,

Trust me, it doesn't hurt. I doubt it hurts Feser that Hume doesn't respond to him. But that doesn't stop him. He thinks he's correcting errors. I feel the same. It feels good to correct errors. It feels good to expose sloppy thinking. It feels good to expose people who despise liberty and individuality. I've been here long enough to scope out the players. I doubt anyone here has much to offer me or anyone else. I'll continue pointing that out. I'm just getting started.

Anonymous said...

Nah, djindra is funny. I'd rather have him around instead of J/Perezoso. I get the feeling that you could have a beer with him, talk about whatever and the conversation won't degrade into spergin' about "flying monks," "El Papa" or "Feiser." Just my $0.02.

djindra said...

I've been reading through the Natural Law section in TLS. A lot of this deserves comment. But I'll focus on a small, rather depressing point:

"Suppose, then, that things really do have final causes, including our various biological capacities. Then it is hardly mysterious what the final cause or natural purpose of sex is: procreation. And procreation is inherently heterosexual. That someone might successfully clone a human being someday is no evidence to the contrary for I am speaking about the way things exist in nature, not the way they might be altered to further some end of ours. It is also irrelevant that people might indulge in sex for all sorts of reasons other than procreation, for I am not talking about what our purposes are, but what nature s purposes are, again in the Aristotelian sense of final causality."

Eventually this leads to:

"...the lesson of all this for sexual morality should be obvious. Since the final cause of human sexual capacities is procreation, what is good for human beings in the use of those capacities is to use them only in a way consistent with this final cause or purpose. This is a necessary truth; for the good for us is defined by our nature : and the final causes of its various elements. It cannot possibly be good for us to use them in any other way, whether an individual person thinks it is or not..."

This "single-use" theory for body parts kind of makes me sad. You see, ever since my wife and I started dating, I've enjoyed rubbing her legs. That eventually progressed to blatant foot massages. Her oohs and aahs and other verbal emissions and even occasional trances indicate she enjoys my advances. Now I come to find out legs and feet were not meant to be enjoyed in this manner. They are not pleasure tools. Furthermore, it's positively unnatural to use body parts in this manner. Worse, it's necessarily immoral.

Too bad. I guess I can't brush her hair anymore either.

OTOH, I wonder if the Red Queen would condone it?

Edward Feser said...

Oh brother. How many times do I have to say that what is morally problematic according to NL theory is only what is directly contrary to the end of a natural capacity, and NOT what is merely other than the end? How many times do I have to say that a natural capacity can have more than one natural end? There is absolutely nothing in what I've said that implies that the activities you describe are immoral, djindra (at least not now that you are married).

But wait, I'm violating my own rule: No feeding the trolls...

djindra said...

Edward,

Using sexual organs for pleasure outside of their purpose (procreation) is no different than using feet for pleasure outside of their purpose (locomotion). That should be obvious. Does consistency count, or what?

And this ignores the fact that the "final cause" for sex is not necessarily procreation anyway. Many lifeforms generate offspring by other means. Why heterosexual sex at all? Asexual procreation works too. Truth is, we don't actually know the purpose of sex. It doesn't seem to be simply procreation. You are unqualified to decide its ultimate reason for being. It could be variety is the ultimate end. Or it is entirely possible that the Red Queen hypothesis is correct. In this case procreation is a by-product of the war against disease.

Martin said...

djindra,

...using feet for pleasure outside of their purpose (locomotion).

Answered by Ed right above you, for the love of all that is holy: "How many times do I have to say that what is morally problematic according to NL theory is only what is directly contrary to the end of a natural capacity, and NOT what is merely other than the end?"

beng said...

Btw, a genuine troll (e.g. djindra) would say ignoring doesn't hurt them bla bla bla yada yada.

Really, IT DOES!

If you really hate a troll's guts, enrage by his writings, IGNORE HIM!

Heck, my continuous suggestions to ignore troll which mention the name of one of the troll (e.g. djindra) give the troll a boost (as shown by the troll's reply).

That's how perverse the troll's desire for attention is.

Again, seriously, if you're ticked by his writings and his antics IGNORE HIM! IT HURTS HIM!

Edward Feser said...

Hi Anonymous,

Sorry to have to have deleted that link -- I agree that Pulp Fiction has got some funny stuff in it -- but that particular bit not only had strong language (as you warned -- not a big deal) but was a bit too pornographic. And I do have a few younger readers...

Anonymous said...

That's cool, Ed. Just thought it'd be funny to mention those parallels.

djindra said...

Martin,

"Answered by Ed right above you, for the love of all that is holy: 'How many times do I have to say that what is morally problematic according to NL theory is only what is directly contrary to the end of a natural capacity, and NOT what is merely other than the end?'"

-- and I pointed out the sex organ example is not any more "contrary to the end of a natural capacity" than the foot example. In fact, I would argue it's *less* contrary to its natural end than a foot massage. At least pleasure is a big part of sex whereas it cannot be considered a big part of locomotion. Again this should be obvious. How dense are you guys? Really? No wonder you hope I'll disappear. Your ideological armor is so flimsy it's ridiculous.

djindra said...

Anonymous,

Sorry I missed that.

Josh said...

No wonder you hope I'll disappear. Your ideological armor is so flimsy it's ridiculous.

Donald,

I don't hope you disappear. My friends and I love reading your posts. They are Hilaaaaaaaarrrrious. Keep on Trollin' Dawg!

Steve Ruble said...

Edward,

What's the procedure for deciding whether an action is directly contrary to the end of a natural capacity, as opposed to other than the end? You provide an example in TLS of someone cutting off their leg as a political statement, and I can understand how that could be said to "frustrate nature's purposes" in that you obviously cannot continue to use your legs for walking around if you've cut one of them off. But the natural parallel to sex from that example is self-castration, not sex with some purpose other than procreation. (In TLS you don't expand on the example of throwing up one's food to avoid gaining weight, but perhaps that would be provide a better parallel if you could explain it a bit more.)

You also point out that,

...holding a table up with one's leg, or holding nails in one's teeth, does not frustrate the walking and chewing functions of legs and teeth, especially since nature obviously does not intend for us to be walking and eating at every single moment. (149)

And that makes sense to me, but it seems obvious as well that nature did not intend for us to be having procreative sex at every single moment, so I'm not sure what the rationale is for your claim that the sexual capacities should only ever be used for their "natural function" when this rule is not applied to the legs and teeth. What is the distinguishing factor?

djindra said...

Steve Ruble,

"...it seems obvious as well that nature did not intend for us to be having procreative sex at every single moment, so I'm not sure what the rationale is for your claim that the sexual capacities should only ever be used for their "natural function" when this rule is not applied to the legs and teeth..."

Also it seems obvious nature did not intend in us humans that sex be used for procreation every time. Estrus in human females is hidden. Human males and females are ready for sex regardless of female fertility. Nature could have easily made us oblivious to sex when conception was not possible. It certainly did so for most animals.

The irony is that I agree with Feser's most important oughts more than he might think. I'm for long-term committed marriages. I'm for honoring the sacred marriage vows. I'm for putting selfish interests aside for the good of the family, especially children. I've lived abiding by these oughts for many years. I'm a witness for them. I applaud people who can promote them. I just think Feser is going about it all wrong.

Anonymous said...

"Also it seems obvious nature did not intend in us humans that sex be used for procreation every time. Estrus in human females is hidden. Human males and females are ready for sex regardless of female fertility. Nature could have easily made us oblivious to sex when conception was not possible. It certainly did so for most animals."

Well, we are fertile the whole year around. So we can get pregnant at any time, depending on the menstrual phase of the cycle of course (which could change unexpectedly). In addition most women seem to have an increased libido around the middle of their cycle (when they're most fertile):

"Both the evolutionary advantage of coordinating sexual activity with fertility and the majority of existing literature point toward a midcycle increase in sexuality during the ovulatory phase."
http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m2372/is_1_41/ai_n6032944/

I don't think nature would necessarily have to make us oblivious to sex at other times as the hormones which co-ordinate this have other functions too.

In post menopausal (infertile) women, sex becomes more uncomfortable as estrogen deficiency leads to vaginal atrophy.

In pregnancy most women also find a reduced libido - especially in the first and last trimester.

Michael said...

Steve,

Please re-read what I posted.

"Question: inclusive "or" or exclusive "or"?

Really this all seems nit-picking as both quotes say negative things about opponents."

I grant now that my last sentence seems a bit ambiguous and messy, but I deliberately cut it short. Whether it's about the opponent's viewpoint or the opponents themselves, both are negative. Take it for what it's worth; call my explanation of my ill-formed sentence lame if you like.

But since you do say that Dawkins' "or" is inclusive, then Feser's rendering is perfectly legitimate because an inclusive "or" includes an "and" interpretation.

Seriously, this is nitpicking. It's more profitable to go after the main arguments themselves.

I myself am sorry for advancing the nitpicking. I just have a problem letting things go. Perhaps Feser can write an article about philosopher's pride and any cures there might be.

Steve Ruble said...

Michael, if you are suggesting that it doesn't change the meaning of a sentence to exchange "and" for "or", I have to suspect that you are ignorant regarding logic, you are a dishonest partisan, or you are a fool. Feel free to substitute "and", but only if you think it's appropriate.

Also, if you think criticisizing ideas is the same as criticizing the people who hold them, you'd better take it up with Feser. He seems pretty insistent about the distinction.

djindra said...

Anonymous,

Maybe it was because we met very young when her cues were exaggerated, and maybe it was because we were almost inseparable from the start, and then she ran poorly on birth control pills so she stopped, and we hated other methods, that for these reasons and others we were very attentive to her fertility cues and figured it out on our own. Most couples don't seem to.

So as you know, during each month the window of conception is only about 4 or 5 days. The other 80% of the month the woman is unable to conceive yet desire is still there. It's true that females are slightly more receptive around ovulation. But desire is strong even during that infertile 80% of the time. That's nature's way, not our choice. Therefore nature meant for sex to be used for more than procreation. And if we measure it by time, nature has given procreation only 20% of the overall time. It's hard to believe nature would give final cause only 20% of the month's cycle. It seems much more reasonable that final cause would be found in the 80% portion. And nature did not do this with most other animals. So it's not as if nature had to make sex the way it did for us. For this reason alone it's downright arrogant to presume to know nature's purpose in matters like this.

beng said...

Is there any other [natural] way man could procreate beside using sexual organ?

So, what was the purpose of sexual organs again? Huh? You don't get it? Seriously?

djindra said...

beng,

"Is there any other [natural] way man could procreate beside using sexual organ?"

Yes. Do you know anything about biology?

Besides, that doesn't address the issue of *primary* purpose, ie, the fuzzy "final cause" concept.

Josh said...

"Is there any other [natural] way man could procreate beside using sexual organ?"


Yes. Do you know anything about biology?

Wow. Humans can reproduce asexually? Neato! You learn a little something new every day.

Michael said...

Steve,

So much for the explanation of my words as you will have none of it!

Of course substituting "and" for "or" changes the meaning. My point is that if "or" is inclusive as you admit, then it may be acceptable to change it to an "and" because it is simply a logical outcome of what has been already said. I disagree, however, that Dawkins' "or" should be taken inclusively, however. So let's just drop it.

And I understand the difference between a person and his views as my post clearly points out.

If we both stop nitpicking together all of this can stop.

Anonymous said...

djindra, the fact that humans can procreate the whole year around, that it takes at least 10-14 days to build up the endrometrial lining and that major changes in sexual drive would probably be disruptive and probably could not occur in isolation in such a complex system (look at the effect of PMT on the 2-5% of women who suffer from it) all indicate to me at least that nature did intend for the process to be procreative.

On the other hand it's hard to deny for most (except perhaps those women who suffer from endometriosis or recurrent PID associated chronic pelvic pain) that sex is pleasureful. As with all pleasurable things (eating, rest, even relief of itching, endorphin receptors etc) we tend to overdo things. We proritise eating for pleasure not nutrition, we prioritise rest not to recover from physical exertion but do it in excess or in inppropriate situations and so on which leads to negative consequences. It's obvious for me that humans seek pleasure and tend to rationalise away natural reasons for things in favour of pleasure seeking.

beng said...

Josh,

Wow. Humans can reproduce asexually? Neato! You learn a little something new every day.


Now, if those atheist really follow their conclusion to its end, LET THEM REPRODUCE WITHOUT USING THEIR SEXUAL ORGANS!

I'm down with that. More power to atheists!!!

djindra said...

Josh,

"Humans can reproduce asexually?"

I responded to "could." If you had used "can" I would have explained that the topic is not what is but why it is.

djindra said...

Anonymous,

"It's obvious for me that humans seek pleasure and tend to rationalise away natural reasons for things in favour of pleasure seeking."

I agree.

Anonymous said...

"The trouble here seems to be that MacDonald, like other New Atheists, thinks in clichés. He already “knows” ..."

This species of pseudo-thinking, of circular thinking directed toward a predetermined end, is so common - indeed ubiquitous is likely the more apt term - among the new atheists that I've given up on even hoping to find any interesting or truly challenging arguments among that clique.

Anonymous said...

I can't help but see all of this as a scene from the 1980's Scottish movie "Gregory's Girl". Feser is the old-style gowned headmaster at a Scots high school, spending some of his precious free time at lunch to play his philosophy on Piano. Unwelcome, one of the pupils, a cheeky chap known as Dawkins sidles around the door to disturb the peace with some whining about the cosmological argument and how he's broken it;

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9FWovgOzmFU