Friday, February 3, 2012

Reading Rosenberg, Part VII

Pressing on through Alex Rosenberg’s The Atheist’s Guide to Reality, we come to Rosenberg’s treatment of morality.  Followed out consistently, Rosenberg says, scientism entails nihilism.  As Rosenberg is keen to emphasize, this is not the same as moral relativism or moral skepticism.  It is not the claim that moral truth is relative, or that it is real but unknowable.  Nor is it the claim that everything is morally permitted.  It is a far more radical and disturbing claim than any of these views.  Nihilism, as Rosenberg understands it, is the view that there is no such thing as being “morally permitted” or “morally prohibited” in the first place.  For there is, given Rosenberg’s scientism, no intrinsic value in the world of the sort that is necessary for morality to be intelligible.  Morality -- not just commonsense or traditional morality, not just religious morality, but all morality, morality as such, including any purported secular, liberal, permissive morality -- is therefore an illusion.  

Rosenberg minces no words:

There is really one bit of bad news that remains to trouble scientism.  We have to acknowledge (to ourselves, at least) that many questions we want the “right” answers to just don’t have any.  These are questions about the morality of stem-cell research or abortion or affirmative action or gay marriage or our obligations to future generations.  Many enlightened people, including many scientists, think that reasonable people can eventually find the right answers to such questions.  Alas, it will turn out that all anyone can really find are the answers that they like.  The same goes for those who disagree with them.  Real moral disputes can be ended in lots of ways: by voting, by decree, by fatigue of the disputants, by the force of example that changes social mores.  But they can never really be resolved by finding the correct answers.  There are none. (p. 96)

For Rosenberg, the consistent naturalist thus has no business moralizing about racism, sexism, social justice, gay rights, animal rights, or what have you.  If scientism is correct, appeals to egalitarian liberal moral premises are as deluded as appeals to natural law or the Ten Commandments.  The liberal can work to promote certain attitudes and discourage others, but he has no grounds for regarding his position as more just or otherwise morally superior to that of his conservative opponents.  At least where questions of value (as opposed to fact) are concerned, the liberal and the conservative just have difference preferences, and that’s that.  Since (notwithstanding a nod to Hayek’s insights about the market) Rosenberg makes it clear that his sympathies are with the Left, his consistency does him credit.  Unfortunately, even Rosenberg’s consistency has its limits.

But before we get to that, it must be emphasized that it is indeed Rosenberg’s scientism, and not his atheism per se, that entails nihilism.  For morality does not depend on religion in quite the way many people suppose it does.  Many religious people think of morality as essentially a set of arbitrary divine commands, so that to deny the existence of a divine commandment-giver is implicitly to deny the very possibility of morality.  Atheists of the sort who populate Woody Allen movies seem to be of the same opinion.  But things are not so simple.  As other atheists rightly point out, if morality rested on nothing but arbitrary divine commands, then anything at all -- including torturing babies just for fun, say -- would be morally legitimate if God commanded it, which seems absurd.  Moreover, we would be left with no explanation of why we should obey God’s arbitrary commands in the first place.

The only alternative to this view, these atheists think, is to acknowledge a source of morality entirely independent of God.  This, of course, is the famous Euthyphro dilemma.  But the dilemma is a false one – certainly from the point of view of Thomism, for reasons I explain in Aquinas.  As with all the other supposedly big, bad objections to theism, this one rests on caricature, and a failure to make crucial distinctions.  First of all, we need to distinguish the issue of the content of moral obligations from the issue of what gives them their obligatory force.  Divine command is relevant to the second issue, but not the first.  Second, it is an error to think that tying morality in any way to divine commands must make it to that extent arbitrary, a product of capricious divine fiat.  That might be so if we think of divine commands in terms of Ockham’s voluntarism and nominalism, but not if, following Aquinas, we hold that will follows upon intellect, so that God always acts in accordance with reason.  Third, that does not entail that what determines the content of morality and God’s rationale for commanding as He does is in any way independent of Him.

I have elaborated upon all of this in an earlier post, to which the interested reader is directed.  The point to emphasize for now is that though there is a sense in which God is the ultimate ground of morality (if only because he is the ultimate ground of everything), the proximate ground of morality is human nature, or at least human nature as understood in light of a classical (and especially Aristotelian) essentialist and teleological metaphysics.  And human nature -- and thus, at least to a large extent, morality -- would be what they are even if, per impossibile, God did not exist (just as the periodic table of the elements would be what it is even if, per impossibile, God did not exist).  This too I have explained at greater length in Aquinas, and in another earlier post.

Scientism undermines morality because, inheriting as it does the early moderns’ “mechanistic” conception of nature (which was defined more than anything else by a rejection of Aristotelian formal and final causes), it rejects the immanent teleology and essentialism necessary to making sense of morality.  If neither human beings nor anything else have any ends toward which they are directed by virtue of their essence, then there can be no objective basis in terms of which to define what is good and bad for us.  (See The Last Superstition for the full story.)  Modern atheism tends toward nihilism, then, not because of its rejection of God per se, but because it is typically grounded in scientism.  

So, to that extent, Rosenberg is in my view correct: If you embrace scientism, then you are committed to nihilism, whether you realize it or not.  Where he goes wrong is in thinking he has given us any good reason to embrace scientism in the first place.  

What more need be said?  Well, a few things.  Though Rosenberg acknowledges that the unavoidability of nihilism is “bad news,” he also thinks it is offset by the “good news” that we are never going to abandon morality anyway, or at least not the common “core” of morality that underlies the different moral systems prevailing in different cultures.  This “core” includes principles like “Protect your children,” “If someone does something nice to you, then, other things being equal, you should return the favor if you can,” ”If you earn something, you have a right to it,” “It’s okay to punish people who intentionally do wrong,” and so forth.  A belief in the truth of this “core morality” has been hardwired into us by natural selection.  The belief is false, but it’s here to stay.  Nor need the liberal worry that this will leave “sexism, racism, and homophobia” intact too.   For it turns out that while all moral claims are equally false, some are more equally false than others.  These politically incorrect attitudes, says Rosenberg, are like suttee, the Hindu caste system, and honor killing in that they result from the combination of “core morality” with “false factual beliefs.”  Correct the latter, and core morality will no longer seem to support the attitudes.  So, ours can be a “nice nihilism,” without a Hobbesian war of all against all, and without even having to abandon “moral progress.”  Don’t worry, be happy!

And this is where Rosenberg suddenly decides that ruthless consistency is perhaps something we needn’t be ruthlessly consistent about.  For how does the purported falsehood of the factual beliefs underlying “sexism, racism, and homophobia” show that we can and should rid ourselves of them, when the purported falsehood of the factual belief underlying “core morality” (viz. the belief that there are intrinsic values) does not show that we can and should rid ourselves if it?  Rosenberg never tells us.  Indeed, what he does tell us only reinforces the suspicion that these politically incorrect moral attitudes are more or less on an evolutionary par with the ones Rosenberg likes:

There are lots of moral values and ethical norms that enlightened people reject but which Mother Nature has strongly selected for.  Racism and xenophobia are optimally adapted to maximize the representation of your genes in the next generation, instead of some stranger’s genes.  Consider the almost universal patriarchal norms of female subordination.  They are all the result of Darwinian processes.  We understand why natural selection makes the males of almost any mammalian species bigger than the females: male competition for access to females selects for the biggest, strongest, males and so makes males on average bigger than females… We also know that in general, there will be selection for individuals who are bigger and stronger and therefore impose their will on those who are weaker -- especially when it comes to maximizing the representation of their genes in the next generation.   (pp. 111-12)

“Homophobia” can be given a similar Darwinian explanation.  So, Rosenberg is faced with a dilemma: He can either say that, natural selection notwithstanding, principles like “If someone does something nice to you, then, other things being equal, you should return the favor if you can” and the like are no more certain to persist in the face of nihilism than “sexism, racism, and homophobia” are; or he can say that, just as natural selection guarantees the stability of the former, so too does it guarantee the stability of the latter.  That is to say, he can either let the political incorrectness along with the parts of “core morality” that he likes stand together, or he can let them fall together.  What he cannot consistently do is make “nice nihilism” nice enough for a liberal to be comfortable with.

Of course, Rosenberg’s book is called The Atheist’s Guide to Reality, not The Egalitarian Liberal’s Guide to Reality.  So it might appear that he can accept this result consistent with his overall position.  But as Rosenberg never tires of reminding us, appearances are deceiving.  For he also allows that:

[T]here is strong evidence that natural selection produces lots of false but useful beliefs.  Just think about religion, any religion.  Every one of them is chock full of false beliefs.  We won’t shake any of them.  There are so many, they are so long-lasting, that false religious beliefs must have conferred lots of adaptive advantages on believers. (p. 111)

But wait: If “core morality” will and should persist despite its purported falseness, why not religion too -- especially if, like core morality, it has been favored by natural selection?  Why “nice nihilism” but not “nice atheism”?  Indeed, Rosenberg will happily allow that the other commonsense beliefs he attacks in his book -- our belief in free will, in the self, the reliability of introspection, the meaningfulness of our thoughts, etc. -- have been favored by natural selection, and are extremely difficult for us to give up.  (Surely it’s even harder to doubt that your choices are free, that the self exists, or that you have meaningful thoughts than it is to doubt the existence of moral truths.)  So why is Rosenberg so keen to stamp them out if he’s happy to allow morality to stand?  Why not “nice hard determinism” and “nice eliminative materialism” too?  

Nor is it merely arbitrary for Rosenberg to chuck out these commonsense beliefs while maintaining core morality.  It is not clear how he can do so coherently.  He tells us that since we have to give up belief in the self and in free will, we will, after all, also have to give up those parts of core morality that presuppose it:

No one ever earned or deserved the traits that resulted in the inequalities we enjoy -- greater income and wealth, better health and longer life, admiration and social distinction, comfort and leisure.  Therefore, no one, including us, has a moral right to those inequalities. (p. 296)

To the charge of being soft on crime, scientism pleads guilty.  According to scientism, no one does wrong freely, so no one should really be punished.  Prisons are for rehab and protection of society only.  To the charge of permitting considerable redistribution of income and wealth, it must also plead guilty, and for the same reasons.  (p. 299)

What survives Rosenberg’s pruning of “core morality” is essentially just the banal observation that:

Most people are nice most of the time, and that includes nihilists.  There is no reason for anyone to worry about our stealing the silver or mistreating children in our care.  As for moral monsters like Hitler, protecting ourselves against them is made inevitable by the very same evolutionary forces that make niceness unavoidable for most of us.  There is nothing morally right about being nice, but we are stuck with it for the foreseeable future.  (p. 144)

Leave aside that we have here yet further instances of sheer caprice on Rosenberg’s part.  (If the parts of “core morality” that presuppose free will and the self can and should disappear after all, why not the others?  Or, again, if the others are allowed to stand despite their falsity, why not let the belief in free will and the self stand as well?)  The deeper problem is that it is hard to see how any moral beliefs at all (and not merely those related to desert and punishment) can possibly survive the abandonment of belief in free will and the self.  Rosenberg’s position boils down to the claim that most people will always continue to accept:

1. You should be nice to people.  

even though they ought, he thinks, also to accept:

2. The idea that you or anyone else “should” do anything is false, you don’t really have a choice in the matter anyway, and there really is no “you” in the first place.

But (1) and (2) are incompatible, and anyone capable of understanding both is also capable of seeing that they are incompatible.  Yet Rosenberg assures us that most people can embrace them both anyway.  This is more hardheaded and scientific than the religious beliefs Rosenberg dismisses as wishful thinking?

As always with Rosenberg, it gets even worse.  Central to his position are the following claims about the epistemological implications of Darwinism:

[T]here is lots of evidence that natural selection is not very good at picking out true beliefs, especially scientific ones.  Natural selection shaped our brain to seek stories with plots.  The result was, as we have been arguing since Chapter 1, the greatest impediment to finding the truth about reality.  The difficulty that even atheists have understanding and accepting the right answers to the persistent questions shows how pervasively natural selection has obstructed true beliefs about reality.  (p. 110)

Natural selection sometimes selects for false beliefs and sometimes even selects against the acquisition of true beliefs.  It sometimes selects for norms we reject as morally wrong.  Therefore, it can’t be a process that’s reliable for providing us with what we consider correct moral beliefs.  (p. 112)

Now the problem here is apparently not obvious to Rosenberg, but I trust that it is obvious to everyone else: If “natural selection is not very good at picking out true beliefs, especially scientific ones,” and indeed if it “sometimes selects for false beliefs and sometimes even selects against the acquisition of true beliefs,” so that “it can’t be a process that’s reliable for providing us with what we consider correct moral beliefs,” then how can we be confident that even science and scientism are correct?  After all, Rosenberg will be the first to tell you that his brain and the brains of every scientist were molded by natural selection no less than the brains of religious believers were.  He will insist that in doing philosophy and science, he and the scientists are only applying whatever meager capacities natural selection imparted to those brains.  So if those capacities were likely to lead us astray with respect to religion, morality, free will, the self, consciousness, meaning, etc., how can we be confident that they are not leading us astray yet again when we develop and test scientific theories and write philosophical books defending scientism?  What non-question-begging reason can be given for supposing that observation, experiment, mathematical modeling, etc. really do give us reliable information about the world and don’t just falsely seem to?  Rosenberg’s only answer is the shit-eating grin he wears in the book’s dust jacket photo.  

(Obviously, the point is related to Plantinga’s “evolutionary argument against naturalism,” but the problem is even worse than the one identified by Plantinga.  Plantinga’s argument seems to require only the claim that natural selection favors fitness alone, which doesn’t necessarily require true beliefs.  Rosenberg’s claim is even stronger than that, though: He maintains that natural selection sometimes positively favors false beliefs and selects against the acquisition of true ones.  So the problem isn’t just that given Rosenberg’s view, Darwinism gives us no reason to think science and scientism are correct; it’s that given his view, Darwinism gives us some reason to think science and scientism are false.)

In short, Rosenberg’s position is an incoherent mess; indeed, we have only begun to see how incoherent it is.  So why bother devoting so much attention to it?  Because Rosenberg gets this much right: If you embrace scientism, you cannot consistently avoid also embracing at least his main, eliminativist conclusions.  And if you still embrace scientism after seeing that, then it isn’t only the opinions of some religious believers that are “faith-based.”

104 comments:

Crude said...

For Rosenberg, the consistent naturalist thus has no business moralizing about racism, sexism, social justice, gay rights, animal rights, or what have you.

Sure, but what reason does any naturalist have for being consistent according to Rosenberg? They can be inconsistent, even flat out dishonest, without any concern beyond the obvious ("I will be caught", etc.)

Crude said...

Actually, you follow that up with "And this is where Rosenberg suddenly decides that ruthless consistency is perhaps something we needn’t be ruthlessly consistent about.", which I missed. Whoops.

morality said...

But there's no reason to NOT use moral arguments to get your way, even if you disagree with them or their truth. So this reads as permission to use morality and moral panic selectively to marginalise anyone you don't like, but not apply those standards to yourself.

Rupert said...

"A belief in the truth of this `core morality' has been hardwired into us by natural selection."

Isn't it more that the motivation to comply with it has been hard-wired into us by natural selection? I find it a lot easier to entertain the idea that there are no moral truths than to entertain the idea of giving up complying with "core morality".

Anonymous said...

Dr. Feser,

I think you say human nature provides the content of moral norms, and human nature is created by God, making God the remote cause and human nature the primary cause of morality.

What do you think of William Lane Craig's suggestion that the content of morality comes from God's commands, and God's commands in turn accord with His own nature? God is loving, and He commands us to be loving. He's just, etc. I don't know what other commands of God Craig sees as proceeding in this way, but that's the gist of his view, that God basically commands us to be like Him.

Anonymous said...

^ Correction: proximate cause, not primary. :)

hubert rainfield said...

A very interesting introduction to another... new world _ to me. Thank you for your intelligence and your graceful erudition and I mean that for what I read on your blog_ Professor Feser; and also to your guests who have long conversations and maintain a certain respect and measure in their discussion, I see why they are so engaged. I did, however, realize... my lack of placement in the pleasure of engagement and by no means have I acquired the ability to participate, but I would like permission to follow. Thank you, Hubert Rainfield, a blog/nom de plume, by any other name I would be Ulric Rainard, at your service, and Good Night

goddinpotty said...

If you embrace scientism, you cannot consistently avoid also embracing at least his main, eliminativist conclusions.

This is not really accurate. As you must know, there are plenty of naturalists and materialists (which I guess is what is meant by "scientism", since that's not really a thing) who are not eliminativists about things like mind and morality. And just because you can't see how they can be consistent doesn't mean they can't be.

It occurs to me that this style of argument is very structurally similar to that used against you by New Atheists: that is, you collapse all sorts of different positions into one rather absurd one, allowing you to safely ignore the nuances. And the NAs like to regard all any kind of theism as equivalent to the naive literalism of the old-man-with-white-beard-in-the-sky, which allows them to ignore the more subtle and sophisticated version of theism you would like to advance.

I think the result is a rather boring form of argument. Imagine if the Super Bowl was replaced by two separate games, each of which pitched the strongest team of one conference against the weakest of the other. Both strong teams crush their opponents and get to loudly bray about their superiority, but no real contest has taken place.

Crude said...

As you must know, there are plenty of naturalists and materialists (which I guess is what is meant by "scientism", since that's not really a thing) who are not eliminativists about things like mind and morality

Ed's argument is that, if I understand him correctly, a consistent naturalist is either going to collapse into eliminative materialism, or out of naturalism. Read The Last Superstition - he says explicitly that eliminative materialism is an extreme minority position among naturalists. However, he argues that attempts to find an alternative (while retaining naturalism, and certainly scientism) fail.

He's already spoken highly on this blog about non-EM 'naturalists' like Bertrand Russell, John Searle, and others, and explained the problems with their views as he sees them.

Edward Feser said...

Hello all,

Crude,

Yes, but Rosenberg certainly thinks he is being consistent, and wouldn't deny that we all should be.

Anonymous,

Well, yes and no. I agree with Craig that God's commands accord with His own nature, but we might disagree about how to spell that out. When God commands us to love just as he does, that is only because it is in our nature for that to be good for us to do; though as with the natures of all things, our nature pre-exists in a sense as an idea or archetype in the divine intellect. I say more about this in some of the places referred to in the main post.

Hubert/Ulric,

Many thanks for your very kind words. You are of course most welcome here.

goddinpotty,

Yes, by itself the sentence you quote just an assertion, but keep in mind that it's an assertion I've tried to back up at length elsewhere (in other posts, in The Last Superstition, etc.) So the comparison to the New Atheists is not fair. This is just one blog post (in a series on a specific topic, at that), and no one can be expected to address everything in such a context. The NA's, by contrast, do what your describing in their books, a context in which one is supposed to be more thorough and nuanced.

Daniel Smith said...

If I substitute "natural selection" for "final cause" (thus removing the weight of God from the subject), I can then choose which of "nature's selections" I like and which I dislike - thus placing my own morality above God's or anyone else's.

That way I am always right!

It's a nice shell game.

The Deuce said...

Ed:

Now the problem here is apparently not obvious to Rosenberg, but I trust that it is obvious to everyone else: If “natural selection is not very good at picking out true beliefs, especially scientific ones,” and indeed if it “sometimes selects for false beliefs and sometimes even selects against the acquisition of true beliefs,” so that “it can’t be a process that’s reliable for providing us with what we consider correct moral beliefs,” then how can we be confident that even science and scientism are correct?

Presumably he'd say that "reason" tells us this... "reason" being a product of the same natural selection that produces false beliefs, of course. Or maybe he'd throw something in there about "the evidence"... "evidence" being the products of our senses when considered by reason... which in turn are products of the same natural selection that produces false beliefs.

But worse than that, how can Rosenburg even distinguish between "true" and "false" beliefs in the first place, given that he denies that thoughts have content and his eliminativism is incompatible with the actual existence of beliefs? Obviously, it can't be the content of a belief (or contentless brain state, or whatever) that's false under his view. He'd have to say that a false brain state is one that doesn't "match" reality somehow, but what could that possibly mean under materialism? That it causes an organism to behave in a way not conducive to its survival? But in that case, any "belief" that is "selected" by natural selection is "true" by definition, regardless of whether it "contradicts" (whatever that could mean if there is no content to contradict) other "true" beliefs! The whole thing is a mess.

goddinpotty said...

Well, I read the section of your book that purports to reduce all materialism to the eliminative variety. I was not impressed; it seems to mainly rely on Searle's and Searle-like arguments, all of which have been amply refuted (eg by Hofstadter and Dennett in their anthology). The problem is that Searle and you can't seem to conceive of something that is at the same time both mechanical and interpretive/symbolic. I tried to give a simple example of such a system (ribosomes, pretty complex machines but much simpler than a brain) in an earlier comment thread here and follwing, although that didn't seem to get across too well.

I can see why you are attracted towards people like the Churchlands and Rosenberg. Eliminative materialism fits perfectly into your own conceptual scheme, which sees mind and matter as unalterably opposed. I on the other hand, and most naturalists, don't believe that at all. We believe that mind is part of nature and we want to understand how that works.

DNW said...

The Deuce said...

... how can Rosenburg even distinguish between "true" and "false" beliefs in the first place, given that he denies that thoughts have content and his eliminativism is incompatible with the actual existence of beliefs? Obviously, it can't be the content of a belief (or contentless brain state, or whatever) that's false under his view. He'd have to say that a false brain state is one that doesn't "match" reality somehow, but what could that possibly mean under materialism? That it causes an organism to behave in a way not conducive to its survival? But in that case, any "belief" that is "selected" by natural selection is "true" by definition, regardless of whether it "contradicts" (whatever that could mean if there is no content to contradict) other "true" beliefs! "


Bingo!

Randy said...

But it is worse than that. Why should you or Rosenberg care to distinguish between true and false beliefs? If you can reassure liberals that sciencism will not threaten their pet causes then you do so. Who cares if the assurance is false? He says evolution does not produce minds that love truth. That sometimes they resist truth.

But why do humans find that so hard to live? Why do we have such an aversion to believing falsehood? If it does not come from evolution then where does it come from?

Pattsce said...

godinpotty,

Feser fully addresses this stuff all the time. Too much actually. I don't really know what you're getting at. I imagine he gets bored repeating himself all of the time. The Last Superstition, nearly the entire book (I'm actually not sure what you mean by "section of your book"), is about just the assertion "If you embrace scientism, you cannot consistently avoid also embracing at least his main, eliminativist conclusions." Dozens of his blog posts do the exact same thing.

And this isn't fanboy stuff; I actually end up skipping most of those issues because I've read them so many times. I also flat out don't understand this statement: "Eliminative materialism fits perfectly into your own conceptual scheme, which sees mind and matter as unalterably opposed. I on the other hand, and most naturalists, don't believe that at all. We believe that mind is part of nature and we want to understand how that works." When has Feser said anything close to this?

Also, "Rosenberg’s only answer is the shit-eating grin he wears in the book’s dust jacket photo." I laughed. It so is.

some kant said...

Dr. Vallicella has a nice set of posts on eliminativism: here. He's also developing a series of posts on naturalism in general (and whether or not it collapses into eliminativism): here (see the post from Dec. 29, 2011).

DNW said...

Indirectly on topic ...

Reading my own remarks in professor Feser's comment boxes, I've been chagrined to find myself sounding like someone who back during his college career had spent too many hours in the stacks thumbing through old 1950s issues of "Mind". [Though I am genuinely perplexed, as are others, as to what the 'meaning deconstructionists' can possibly imagine they preserve for *themselves* in the way of objective meaning when delivering utterances in, the "imperative mood", as Ayer might have said.

That got me wondering if that old journal "Mind" was available on-line, for free. The answer is no, as nearly as I can tell.

But the "other one" was; in part at least.



Many who visit here here will especially enjoy going through the last available year of the Monist: "A Quarterly Magazine Devoted to the Philosophy of Science".

Maybe even professor Feser if he hasn't already archived it.

Just look at some of the entry titles.


http://www.archive.org/details/monistquart32hegeuoft


Cassirer, Ernst. Einstein's Theory of Relativity Considered from the Epistemological Standpoint ... 89

Barrow, George A. Science and Self-Sacrifice ... 135

Dewey's Theory of Value. By T. V. Smith 339

Fallacy of Exclusive Scientific Methodology, The. By Wesley Raymond Wells 471

Ethics, Morality, and Metaphysical Assumptions. By Louis Arnaud Reid.. 482

Failure of Critical Realism, The. By J. E. Turner 395

Joad, C. E. M. A Criticism of Critical Realism 520

Wiener, Norbert. The Relation of Space and Geometry to Experience.. 12, 200, 364

goddinpotty said...

Pattsce,

What I mean, Feserism and eliminativism are two sides of the same bad coin, the coin marked mind-body dualism. Bad in that neither gives an acceptable account of mind. The one resorts to supernatural explanations, the other denies the phenomenon. The eliminativists don't consider themselves dualists, but I do -- they just believe that one side of the duality is not real.

The Deuce said...

Eliminative materialism fits perfectly into your own conceptual scheme, which sees mind and matter as unalterably opposed....

What I mean, Feserism and eliminativism are two sides of the same bad coin, the coin marked mind-body dualism.


Did you really read TLS? It's really hard to believe sometimes from your "interpretations" of Feser. The belief you've attributed to him here is quite nearly the exact opposite of what he's said.

And he did donate a good amount of discussion to causal theories, homonculi, etc in the book to show how "non-reductive" materialistic theories of mind that rely on the mechanistic view of matter collapse into eliminativism.

goddinpotty said...

Hm, I see you are right, I skimmed too quickly, and was attributing Feser's description of Cartesianism to Feser himself. My apologies, and I withdraw that particular comment.

He is right that Descartes and modernism ushered in this particular intractable form of dualism. But I find his cure worse than the disease. Modernism was driven by new knowledge about how the world works; to undo it is impossible. We need to go forward, not backward. The solution to mind-body dualism is not reverting to some medeval or earlier metaphysics, but in a proper and scientific understanding of the relationship between mind and world.

I don't find his supposed refutations of non-eliminative versions of materialism very convincing, but this seems to be a perennial and intractable split (ie, Searle is absolutely convinced his Chinese Room argument is sound, and people like Dennett and Hofstadter, and me, are equally absolutely certain that it is flawed. Communication between these sides seems next to impossible.

Tony said...

But I find his cure worse than the disease. Modernism was driven by new knowledge about how the world works; to undo it is impossible. We need to go forward, not backward. The solution to mind-body dualism is not reverting to some medeval or earlier metaphysics, but in a proper and scientific understanding of the relationship between mind and world.

I don't think so. Nothing that we learned about physics as of the time of Bacon and Descartes implied that Thomism was wrong and a new model was needed to explain mind in the world. Nor has any development in physics since then. There simply isn't any physics problem that calls for a solution that Thomism doesn't provide, that other models do provide without other major problems.

By the way, can I just say that your moniker makes you sound like a silly foul-mouthed 2nd-grader, the sort of kid who cannot express himself so he resorts to potty humor. If that's how you want to come off, I guess it's working.

Mary said...

Most people are nice most of the time,

Which inspires me to remember a case where an atheistic blogger posted about his resolution to be nicer to people.

Other atheists instantly piled on him demanding that he confess to having had a religious conversion. They refused to believe that anyone could try to be better while an atheist -- that we are all stuck with our current level of nice or not. Dumb luck will determine it.

It is intriguing to note that this blogger did indeed become a Christian later. If they were right about this showing him moving that way, they might also be right about atheists' being unable to morally improve themselves.

Crude said...

Hm, I see you are right, I skimmed too quickly, and was attributing Feser's description of Cartesianism to Feser himself. My apologies, and I withdraw that particular comment.

Man, if your 'skimming' of the book left you with the impression that Feser endorses Descartes' substance dualism, don't you think the wiser thing to do would be to just pull back altogether and try reading the book beyond skimming? That's not exactly a minor mistake - it goes against the whole theme of the book.

goddinpotty said...

Tony: Well, I don't really know enough about Thomism to give you a very good response, but:

- science in historical fact proceeded without Thomistic principles. It did very well for itself assuming a mechanical universe. Whether it could have developed in a different way is something we will never know, but I doubt it.

- Given my largely scientific background, the principles of Aristotelianism and Thomism just seem like obscure, obsolete nonsense to me. That doesn't mean they necessarily *are* nonsensical. I'm pretty sure if I studied that stuff deeply for years I could get it to make sense to me. But I'm not sure why I would want to. Ideas like potency vs. actuality and the four types of causes seem like so much phlogistion or luminiferous ether -- things that seemed real enough at the time they were invented, but eventually better theories came around that made them unnecessary.

- that's not to say there aren't lots of things wrong with modernism or the current practice of science, especially the science of mind, or how it science is turned into ideology (scientism). I'm somewhat sympathetic to the problems that Feser is addressing. I just don't like his solutions.

- to return to the original point: I maintain it is possible to be a materialist without being an eliminativist. But I realize that people who have never built a computer system from the hardware up, or never studied a biological system in depth, probably don't have the intellectual tools for understanding how intentionality, meaning, interpretation, and mind can arise from simple parts. That's why Searle's argument appears as deep to some (those who don't understand home computers work) and as obviously fraudulent as a three-card monte game to others (those who do).

- sorry, this grew too long, but I'll shut up now unless I feel I actually have something new to say.

PS: My moniker was stolen from James Joyce and has layers of meaning that are actually relevant to this discussion, the 2nd-grade humor layers notwithstanding.

Crude said...

That's why Searle's argument appears as deep to some (those who don't understand home computers work) and as obviously fraudulent as a three-card monte game to others (those who do).

Sorry, but this just doesn't fly. I may be an amateur at it, but I've both assembled computers, and I'm a programmer - and Searle's argument remains in force. You may want to consider that the inability of critics to aptly explain where Searle and others go wrong may not be the result of Searle and company not having assembled a computer before, but of mistaken intuition on their own part.

Further, you say that intentionality 'arises' out of parts. But according to Dennett, all intentionality is derived, and none of it is intrinsic/original - and given that, it's not clear it even makes sense to attribute to Dennett the view that intentionality 'arises out of simple parts'. Maybe that one can derive - assign - intentionality to simple parts. But that minds are capable of deriving intentionality in this way isn't what's in dispute.

And that seems to be one place where your examples go wrong. You seem to think that your ability to derive intentionality in a machine or a ribosome is all you need to do. But no one (except, perhaps, the eliminative materialists) is doubting the existence of derived intentionality, Searle included. You can derive intentionality with a couple of rocks if you like.

Are you aware of the difference between original and derived intentionality?

Anonymous said...

James Joyce...oh okay.

All this time I'd been thinking that you had some perverse desire to put God in a "potty," which would have betrayed many things about you, one of which being a lack of understanding of classical theism.

Aquinas3000 said...

I've been waiting for someone to ask how, for Rosenberg, Hitler can be a "moral monster" if there are no morals. Surely it should just be Hitler's preferences?

Untenured said...

@GiP:

"But I'm not sure why I would want to. Ideas like potency vs. actuality and the four types of causes seem like so much phlogistion or luminiferous ether -- things that seemed real enough at the time they were invented, but eventually better theories came around that made them unnecessary."

Here is another common but egregious mistake. Things like the act/potency distinction and the four causes are not "empiricial posits" which purport to explain some particular phenomenon like conflagration or the waveform propagation of light. Thus, it is just confused to lump them in with phlogiston or ether or spontaneous generation or any other outdated empirical hypothesis.

Thomism just isn't an empirical hypothesis of the same type. It is a conceptual apparatus that purport to make the world of experience intelligible, irrespective of whether any particular scientific theory pans out.

Thus, saying that modern science could discredit the act/potency distinction is like saying it could discredit realism about universals or transcendental idealism. To think things like this is to succumb to a category mistake.

A whole generation of philosophers, under the influence of Quine and his progeny, have learned (sic) how to do history of philosophy by assuming that metaphysics is really just an outmoded form of empirical explanation. Thus they invariably think that Aquinas was "really" doing "medieval physics" and that Leibniz was "positing" monads primarily as a way of accounting for the scientific data.

This makes it real easy to "refute" past philosophers- you just project a false empirical theory onto them and note that we "have moved beyond this" in terms of our "understanding of the world." It is, however, an utterly fraudulent way of doing philosophy.

grodrigues said...

@goddinnpotty:

"I maintain it is possible to be a materialist without being an eliminativist. But I realize that people who have never built a computer system from the hardware up, or never studied a biological system in depth, probably don't have the intellectual tools for understanding how intentionality, meaning, interpretation, and mind can arise from simple parts. That's why Searle's argument appears as deep to some (those who don't understand home computers work) and as obviously fraudulent as a three-card monte game to others (those who do)."

Methinks you realize nothing if you think that building computer systems from hardware or studying biological systems in depth gives you any conceptual tools to respond to Searle's argument(s).

Oh and I do understand how home computers work, and while I have not assembled any, I have programmed my own (very simple) virtual machine which conceptually speaking, amounts to the same thing.

Anonymous said...

"I don't really know enough about Thomism to give you a very good response,"

So you'll just give us a very crummy response instead? If by"given your largely scientific background" you mean to tell us that your background isn't in philosophy, then no kidding, we could've guessed that. Although when you mix up metaphysics with "phlogiston" we have to wonder whether even your "scientific background" needs to be taken with a grain of salt. You complain that you "don't' like Feser's solutions" even though you just admitted that you don't even understand what they are. And then you accuse people who haven't "built" a computer of being too stupid to understand a position that even its defenders generally acknowledge is not really understood at this point. Look, I'm not shocked at your ignorance of Scholastic philosophy (or philosophy in general). The Thomism police aren't going to bust down your door and force you to know what you're talking about. I'm not even complaining if you came here and wanted other people to do all the work of explaining it to you. But why oh why do people like this keep coming here and saying "I'm too lazy to read a book and too cheap to sign up for a philosophy class, so I'm utterly clueless about your position BUT YOU'RE ALL LAUGHABLY WRONG"?!? What would possess a person to act that way? Is it just the Internet? Fluoride in the water? What???

goddinpotty said...

@grodriguez -- understanding computers may help understnd whey Searle is wrong, but not necessarily. I can only speak from personal experience here, but I'd been programming computers for quite a few years before I really understood the clever way in which the symbolic level and the physical level are linked.

@untenured -- Things like the act/potency distinction and the four causes are not "empiricial posits" which purport to explain some particular phenomenon realized -- I'm aware that these are not quite the same sort of concepts as pholgistion etc; I was makng an analogy.

I's interesting that you should say that they "purport to make the world of experience intelligible". I would expect the tools for making sense of personal experience to be different from those of science. Eg, I can look around my office and assign a "final cause" to every object I see, books and tools and furniture, because they are all there for a reason of mine.

So, it is quite true that developments in science do almost nothing to change the way we interact with our everyday worlds and the concepts we employ for that. What it does is is cure us of thinking that that level of description has anything to do with the fundamental metaphysics of the universe.

The Deuce said...

FWIW, I'm a software engineer too. I've built my own machines, and I've taken the theory classes on Turing machines, assembly language, and an electrical engineering course where we built our own registers with adders and subtractors, etc. Removing the black box aspect and gaining a better conceptual understanding of what's actually going on when a computer "does math" has really helped to drive home the points made by Searle and others (though you don't need expertise to see that they're correct).

Michael said...

"I's interesting that you should say that they "purport to make the world of experience intelligible". I would expect the tools for making sense of personal experience to be different from those of science. Eg, I can look around my office and assign a "final cause" to every object I see, books and tools and furniture, because they are all there for a reason of mine."

This is sufficiently addressed in Feser's book.

Anonymous said...

Woah, now Crude and Deuce. Seems like lots of computer people like pontificating on philosophy of religion.

Tom said...

Hi Ed,

Can you please help me understand the apparent conflict of morality being what is consistant with what is in our best interest as directed by nature and acts in the Old Testament which seem to violate this such as God's command to kill all the Canaanite clans? Must we just say that the Old Testament is not inerrant?

William Lane Craig resolves this by simply stating the Canaanite's were wicked and it is within God's providence to make such a command.

Mr. Green said...

Tom: Can you please help me understand the apparent conflict of morality being what is consistant with what is in our best interest as directed by nature and acts in the Old Testament which seem to violate this such as God's command to kill all the Canaanite clans?

What is the inconsistency? Of course, there are serious reasons not to take such passages completely literally, but even for the sake of argument, where would an actual contradiction lie in such a command? It may not be a "nice" or "fun" fate, but nobody said our best interests were always "fun". It is certainly hypothetically possible that that was the best moment for the people involved to die; God could have zapped them all with lightning bolts, or he could have planned for them all to suffer heart attacks at that time, or he could have used human beings as instruments to carry out His wishes. All we can safely conclude is that it was a highly unusual event… which it doubtless was.

BenYachov said...

Best Anon Post ever!

if you came here and wanted other people to do all the work of explaining it to you. But why oh why do people like this keep coming here and saying "I'm too lazy to read a book and too cheap to sign up for a philosophy class, so I'm utterly clueless about your position BUT YOU'RE ALL LAUGHABLY WRONG"?!? What would possess a person to act that way? Is it just the Internet? Fluoride in the water? What???

If anyone knew the answer to that question they would be wiser then Socrates and Solomon combined IMHO.

Tom said...

Mr Green, the contradiction is that God's commandment included the killing of children. Most people consider this wrong unless a devine command is given which is William Lane Craig's explanation.

BenYachov said...

I want to take a run at Tony's great question but I hope others will answer it too.

>Can you please help me understand the apparent conflict of morality being what is consistant with what is in our best interest as directed by nature and acts in the Old Testament which seem to violate this such as God's command to kill all the Canaanite clans?

It is against the rational nature God gave us to un-lawully take any human life for any reason.

But God is the source of Life and Law so He has the actual authority to take any human life as He sees fit.

Even slaying an Evil doer without authority makes you a murder. Governments have the power given by God, to use premeditated deadly force against combatants and criminals but vigilantes do not.

Torturing Babies for fun OTOH(i.e. inflicting horrible pain on children to derive sadistic enjoyment from the act) can never be commanded by God.

Sadists are morally and mentally damaged persons who derive pleasure from hurting the innocent mainly because they themselves feel powerless so they enjoy the sick power they have over their victims.

Obviously God given His Classic Nature can't coherently be a sadist. He doesn't need to "feel powerful" because he already knows He is perfectly. He doesn't have passions so he doesn't need to "feel" at all.

It is not evil for God to will & or cause someone's earthly life to end or to command someone to do it.

It's evil for me to unlawfully end anyone's life because that is for God alone.

BenYachov said...

>God's commandment included the killing of children.

It's not wrong for God to kill children. Their lives & their existence belong to Him since he sustains both.

He doesn't owe them life or existence. If He wills to end their Earthly lives by whatever means then that is His prerogative. The Command of Haran(God ordering the destruction of a whole people) can only be given via a Public Divine Revelation. Since the death of the Last Apostle(i.e. St John) that can no longer happen.
Haran was not an open ended Command. Catholics don't believe in Scripture Alone. Jewish tradition teaches if any of the inhabitants of the Land placed under Haran choose to flee or accept the Seven Laws of Noah then they must be spared.

Crude said...

Anon,

Woah, now Crude and Deuce. Seems like lots of computer people like pontificating on philosophy of religion.

Where's the philosophy of religion in this thread? Metaphysics and some philosophy of mind, here.

Brian said...

BenYachov, that is an excellent response, but I think this is a question which marshals many different disciplines of Catholic theology to answer it. Your response just involves one discipline, and I think we need to involve covenant theology (the Deuteronomic Covenant had significantly deteriorated from the original Sinai Covenant); biblical interpretation (the relevant texts here seem to involve Hebrew hyperbole and ancient near-east deprecatory language that we need to parse); fundamental theology (the certainty of faith tells us there is no problem at all, even if we cannot see the resolution now or ever); etc.

Anonymous said...

Ben said: "Governments have the power given by God, to use premeditated deadly force against combatants and criminals but vigilantes do not."

I would say that this would mean legitimate governments, right? Or is say the government of North Korea or Stalin's government in this league too? What about the British government prior to the Declaration of Independence in North America? The pre-1994 white only government in South Africa? I have difficulty with this point knowing how many times the Church sided with the people against governments - look at Eastern Europe prior to 1989 or South Africa prior to 1994. I realize this may be off topic for this discussion but a carte blanche approach of governments have God's authority is dangerous I think as it gives legitimacy to any sort of behavior from mundane abuses of power such as ACTA, or different justice for the haves vs the have-nots, to serious human rights violations such as perpetrated in North Korea.

Anonymous said...

Ben said: "Sadists ... because they themselves feel powerless ...."

This need not necessarily be so. Not all sadists feel inadequate, some just enjoy inflicting pain. But I agree with your point.

machinephilosophy said...

"I read the section of your book that purports to reduce all materialism to the eliminative variety.

I've dissected every argument in the book, and I don't see a single statement that even hints at such a reduction.

But vagueness itself sure gets a free ride when fundy-thumping groundless claims about others' writings!

Tom said...

Hi Ben, et. al,

Thanks for trying to help me out but i'm still struggling to see how the pieces fit together. Thank you for your patience. As a preface, I agree with everything you have stated in your last two emails but what I'm grasping to understand is how your statements fit with Dr. Feser's account that what is good is based upon "[what] is in our nature for that to be good for us to do". Perhaps I'm misreading Dr. Feser's explanation.

As I read your responses it appears you are using Divine Commands and Divine Providence as a justification for things, which is the same justification that Craig gives, but seems, to me, at odds with Dr. Feser's account that we are only to do good according to what is in our nature. For instance "It is not evil for God to will & or cause someone's earthly life to end or to command someone to do it." Is invoking both divine providence and divine command but I don't understand how this has anything to do with our nature. Please help. Am I hopeless?

emanuel. said...

Shit-eating grin, or as Kenneth Clark called it in Civilisation, about Voltaire, I think, "the Smile of Reason".

The Deuce said...

Hi Tom,

Keep in mind that the human person has a hierarchy of goods, and that the chief end of man, that is to say the highest good, is the end of the intellect, which is to know and to glorify God. And while we can have imperfect knowledge of what is morally good for us in general by reason, it doesn't mean that we can know what is good perfectly for all situations, that we can't gain further knowledge of the good by revelation than we could on our own, or that God doesn't give commands which supersede the more general goods we can glean by reason, since our obligation to know and glorify him is our highest good above all others.

Anonymous said...

machinephilosophy,

i'd like access to those notes of yours on TLS. pleeeaaaseee! what the Muslims say in this regard may be encouraging: 'the zakat (i.e., alms) of knowledge is to share it'.

Maolsheachlann said...

I am a conservative Catholic but I do see some merit in Rosenberg's arguments. Materialist morality is indeed incoherent, but even without engaging in Rosenberg's Darwinian just-so stories, it's obvious that it pays to be nice and it is, if nothing else, usually the line of least resistance. The majority of people in Western countries probably don't have a serious belief in God and haven't seriously practiced a faith for several generations, and yet the bottom doesn't seem to have fallen out of morality-- apart from sexual morality, and the validity of that morality is disputed by liberals anyway. There even seems to be signs of moral progress in other departments, e.g., anti-racism. I'm not agreeing with Rosenberg, just saying that his worldview seems to be the most plausible one for naturalists.

As for why we should want people to be nice, that's another question, but most of us do.

The Deuce said...

Course, by most reports, Hitler was fairly nice. Most abortion doctors are nice. Etc. You can do quite a bit of evil while being outwardly nice, and to call people out on their misdeeds isn't nice, but often good.

Tom said...

The Deuce said "Keep in mind that the human person has a hierarchy of goods, and that the chief end of man, that is to say the highest good, is the end of the intellect, which is to know and to glorify God. "

This is the clarification I needed! I was mistakenly thinking that Dr. Feser was saying our good is singurally defined by what our nature dictates which in turn God defines thus God is a secondary cause for deciding what is morally good. If I understand you correctly, the good as defined by nature can be superseded by a divine command thus Thomists don't dispute divine commands as a source of defining the moral good but they add the notion of acting in accordance to one's nature as another, though subordinate, way to know the good. Is this correct?

If this is correct can someone please point me to where this is spelled out in more detail?

Thanks!

machinephilosophy said...

Anonymous,

Thanks, but my notes on The Last Superstition are still too literally Feser at this point to be able to legally disseminate them. However, the essential argumentation (and objections thereto) will be integrated into a forthcoming book, The Black Book of Atheism.

The book will also cover this entire blog, including comments. While not giving away the store (the essential argumentation of Ed's books, articles, and blog), check my blog for many of the best quotes from The Last Superstition and Ed's book on Aquinas (50 pages into that, at this point).

In the meantime, I suggest reading both The Last Superstition and Aquinas into a direct-to-mp3 voice recorder (such as a Sony ICD-PX820, at ~$50), and then transfer the mp3 files onto an mp3 player and listening to them several hundred times each. Works for me!

Then just name one of your pets Feser like we did (a gray male Korat monster cat with a personality that matches Ed's) and you're set. Plenty of shouted reminders daily to do your Feser readings!

Cheers

David T said...

@Maolsheachlann:

I think your point about the "line of least resistance" is perceptive. Live and let live takes the least energy, is least dangerous, and it is the default mode of humanity, Hobbes not withstanding. An ongoing problem for commanders during WWI were the little truces that would naturally develop along various parts of the line. Soldiers have no natural inclination to engage and kill the enemy and need continual prodding to do so. Left to their own, ordinary soldiers simply set up camp opposite each and leave each other alone.

The problem with relying on this primitive level of morality is that it breaks down fairly quickly under stress. A highly complex civilization like ours requires a great deal of individual virtue to keep going. The cops, politicians and judges must be by and large honest, etc. This is no issue in times of prosperity, but what happens in times of great economic stress? The cops and judges are tempted to take bribes, etc. It is at this point that something more than primitive morality is needed.

darrenl said...

I had the opportunity to "debate" (...if you would call it that...) a moral nihilist before, and it was interesting. The complete denial of morality leads the person into all sorts of corners.

One example I nailed this particular person was that, technically speaking, one could be put to death for jay walking as much as they could for murder. Since there is no such thing as good or evil in terms of crime, there can therefore be no "better" or "worse" punishments either. So, as long as some council, or judge thinks its efficient to kill a person for jay walking, then such a thing would be permissible. Oh...it got even more weird after that.

One has to wonder if it is really worth jumping through these mental hoops one goes through, just to avoid God.

machinephilosophy said...

Tom,

Don't feel like the Lone Ranger. I have an extremely tough time trying to understand any of this, but I'm making progress through sustained reading of Ed's writings and those of the standard big guns in Thomistic philosophy.

I suggest you do what I do with all philosophy books: Read preview material on amazon.com of books on Thomism/Neo-Thomism, but more importantly go to large libraries, get all the books on Thomism/Neo-Thomism you can find, and read just the first two pages of the Introductions or of the first chapters (for those works that have no Introduction). That will give you a good idea of who the good writers are.

Also, there is a bibliography of books that Ed recommends, but I forget right now where it is.

Lastly, I suggest you read, along with Ed's books, this entire blog, beginning with the very first post.

The real problem is that Thomism needs to be fleshed out much more clearly by its expositors, and Ed's works are a giant leap in that direction.

What I can't figure out is why Catholic churches don't teach this stuff. Both the edification of Catholics and outreach to non-Catholics would be tremendous. I'm saying this, and I'm not even a Catholic!

goddinpotty said...

@machinephilosophy: Feser said "Naturalism, when consistently worked out, leads to a radical eliminativism." Similar quotes are easy to find.

Scott W. said...

"The Thomism police aren't going to bust down your door and force you to know what you're talking about."


Heh. No one ever expects the Thomism Police...

The Deuce said...

What I can't figure out is why Catholic churches don't teach this stuff. Both the edification of Catholics and outreach to non-Catholics would be tremendous. I'm saying this, and I'm not even a Catholic!

Agreed, and furthermore, I wish that Protestants hadn't completely forgotten this stuff, and "thrown out the baby with the bathwather" so to speak. I think the basics of the Thomistic philosophy are rationally undeniable, in fact. That is to say, if you actually understand them, it is impossible to deny them without denying such fundamentals as the objectivity of truth, of the senses to deliver us any accurate information at all, the laws of logic, the idea that experience tells us anything at all, the idea that there is such a thing as causation and that effects aren't totally random and undetermined and that just anything can't happen at any time, etc. The same for the Thomistic argument for the immateriality of the intellect, btw.

Maolsheachlann said...

darrenl wrote:

"One example I nailed this particular person was that, technically speaking, one could be put to death for jay walking as much as they could for murder. Since there is no such thing as good or evil in terms of crime, there can therefore be no "better" or "worse" punishments either. So, as long as some council, or judge thinks its efficient to kill a person for jay walking, then such a thing would be permissible. Oh...it got even more weird after that."

You know that's an episode of Star Trek, right? Where Wesley Crusher gets sentenced to death for breaking some glass playing beach volleyball. I didn't know it was making a point about the metaphysical underpinnings of morality at the time.

James said...

What I can't figure out is why Catholic churches don't teach this stuff.

They do, of course, but the central theses of Thomism are in any event proposed, not imposed (proponantur veluti tutae normae directivae).

While CIC 1917 read:

Can. 589 §1. Religiosi in inferioribus disciplinis rite instructi, in philosophiae studia saltem per biennium et sacrae theologiae saltem per quadriennium, doctrinae D. Thomae inhaerentes ad normam can. 1366, §2, diligenter incumbant, secundum instructiones Apostolicae Sedis.

CIC 1983 reads:

Can. 252 §3. Lectiones habeantur theologiae dogmaticae, verbo Dei scripto una cum sacra Traditione semper innixae, quarum ope alumni mysteria salutis, s. Thoma praesertim magistro, initimus penetrare addiscant, itemque lectiones theologiae moralis et pastoralis, iuris canonici, liturgiae, historiae ecclesiasticae, necnon aliarum disciplinarum, auxiliarium atque specialium, ad normam praescriptorum institutionis sacerdotalis Rationis.

The Church has ‘no philosophy of her own’ (suam ipsius philosophiam non exhibet Ecclesia, neque quamlibet praelegit peculiarem philosophiam aliarum damno). That is why very little of what goes on at this blog so much as touches on Catholic doctrine in the strict sense, let alone Catholic faith.

machinephilosophy said...

James,

Can you give just a few specific examples of Catholic churches that actually teach Thomism? I've never heard of this. In fact, except for this blog and a few online forums and university philosophy courses, I have yet to meet a Catholic in person who has ever even *heard* of Aquinas, sad but true.

machinephilosophy said...

"Naturalism, when consistently worked out, leads to a radical eliminativism."

How does that imply:

"I read the section of your book that purports to reduce all materialism to the eliminative variety."

Funny, I didn't know that "naturalism, when consistently worked out" implies "all materialism".

Perhaps you can actually demonstrate this with some actual logical precision, and include some of those those similar easy-to-find quotes, instead of just continuing to reword your priest-of-vagueness routine while falsely criticizing Ed using a logical standard from which you yourself seem to get a pass.

George R. said...

In fact, except for this blog and a few online forums and university philosophy courses, I have yet to meet a Catholic in person who has ever even *heard* of Aquinas, sad but true.

Vatican II, the gift that keeps on giving.

Tom said...

Anon wrote " What would possess a person to act that way? Is it just the Internet? Fluoride in the water? What???

I think it is a combination of ignorance and arrogance. I'm a computer programmer, and based upon interactions with others in my field and my own lapse of judgement, I believe it is easy for someone who has written code to falsely believe that the mind can easily deduced to the computer software+hardware analogy. Some people are so convinced of this belief that they think they can refute the, in their mind, outmoded philosophy of the mind without ever picking up a philosophy book. The ignoramus then proceeds to jump onto a form/blog to "show is stuff". All the while completely unaware the fool he is making of himself, not knowing that he fails to grasp the basic problem the are professing to have mastered.

darrenl said...

Maolsheachlann said...

You know that's an episode of Star Trek, right? Where Wesley Crusher gets sentenced to death for breaking some glass playing beach volleyball. I didn't know it was making a point about the metaphysical underpinnings of morality at the time.

...holy crap, I completely forgot about that episode. That, sir, is creepy.

ProphetPlanck said...

The world is irrational. That is why philosophy will never work. Only science gives us some sort of footing in this great soup of chaos.

Tony said...

Machinephilosophy: Can you give just a few specific examples of Catholic churches that actually teach Thomism? I've never heard of this. In fact, except for this blog and a few online forums and university philosophy courses, I have yet to meet a Catholic in person who has ever even *heard* of Aquinas, sad but true.

Machine, I don't quite know what you mean by "Catholic churches" in this context. Many priests once in a while teach from the pulpit something that either originated in Thomistic thought, or was clarified by him (though often enough they muddle it). But rarely will they actually cite him. Except if you happen to have MY parish priest, who quotes St. Thomas about every 4th sermon.

Seminaries that ignored Thomism are trending toward dying out, and seminaries that still attempt to teach it (well, some of them) are trending in the opposite direction. More of the young priests actually understand Thomism than those aged 55 to 70.

SR said...

@The Deuce,

Do you consider hylemorphism as one of those things that no rational person can deny? Here is another possibility: all physical things are form/energy composites (where energy takes the form of mass for those things we can touch). This alternative has the advantage of getting rid of the unobservable concept of prime matter. On the other hand, it raises the question of which is the actualizer: form or energy, but there is no point in exploring that if you have a clear reason to reject the idea of form/energy composition.

Here's another argument that might lead one to question A-T:

1. Prime matter is formless.
2. God is formless (that being another word for "simple").
3. There can be only one formlessness (if two, at least one must have some form to distinguish between the two).
4. Therefore, God and prime matter are identical.
5. Therefore, God is both Pure Act and Pure Potential (or something beyond both).

some kant said...

The world is irrational. That is why philosophy will never work. Only science gives us some sort of footing in this great soup of chaos.

~*farts*~

Pattsce said...

"Heh. No one ever expects the Thomism Police..."

Dude, watch out.

Tony said...

SR, here's another syllogism you missed:

(eating) Bread crumbs is better than nothing.

Nothing is better than a great steak.

Therefore, bread crumbs are better than a great steak.

Pattsce said...

I'll defend Machine a little bit here. My family was nominally Catholic, so I was baptized in the Church. I had never heard of Thomas until much later in my life. I'd heard the name somewhere, but I had no idea what he actually thought. Incidentally, I eventually officially became a Catholic after some time with Thomas.

To not defend Machine, I'll say this. The Church has an enormous history with this kind of philosophy. And they've pretty much never Officially wandered from it. People are usually just lazy, and "philosophy is boring," and "American Idol is on." A large majority of the world doesn't think philosophy has really any actual value. And they don't really think it's all that connected to religion. So, trying to sell Thomism in a stupid world isn't generally considered fruitful.

THAT said, I don't think the Church should sell itself short. Especially with the brilliance found within it. Also, it may perhaps be appropriate to blame (at least in part) the Church for the stupidness in the world. If it keeps trying to sell cheap, happy-clappy nonsense like the Protestants, people get bored, and the religion loses most of its value. It just becomes one among the many meaningless, feel-good groups in the world.

machinephilosophy said...

Tony,

Sorry about my lack of proper terms for what I was trying to refer to, but yes I meant the staff or priests of the local parish. Call me naive, but given the appeal of a-t metaphysics to both religious and non-religious, Catholic and non-Catholic, I figured they would just be routinely having classes on Thomism and that it would be open to non-Catholics. Or at least at some substantial minority of parishes where the priests are interested in such things, anyway, as you described. I have a lot of respect for Catholicism primarily because of Aquinas's view of reason, natural theology, the provability of an ultimate being, and the willingness to engage opposing views in a systematic analytic way. And that, in turn, is why I'm giving the views and arguments of Aquinas and those influenced by him, a further hearing and a closer examination.

Daniel Smith said...

SR: Here's another argument that might lead one to question A-T:

1. Prime matter is formless.
2. God is formless (that being another word for "simple").
3. There can be only one formlessness (if two, at least one must have some form to distinguish between the two).
4. Therefore, God and prime matter are identical.
5. Therefore, God is both Pure Act and Pure Potential (or something beyond both).


Dr Feser gave this answer to my very similar question in the last installment in this series:

Feser: Yes, when it is said that God is pure actuality and devoid of potency, what that means is that He is devoid of any passive potency (the capacity to be affected by anything) whatsoever. But He is supreme in what is sometimes called active potency or power -- the capacity to affect other things. ("Potency" is also a word for power, after all -- as in "omnipotent.") See Summa Theologiae I.25.1:

http://www.newadvent.org/summa/1025.htm


I also recently published a blog post asking the question: Does God Have Any Potential?

Brian said...

machinephilosophy, parishes which teach natural theology and fundamental theology based on Thomism and orthodox Catholicism? Sounds flippin' suhweet.

SR said...

@Tony,

If you were to show where I have used a term equivocally, that would help. I realize that my argument will sound silly to a dedicated A-T-er, but it is not clear to me why.

@Daniel,

I think I am raising a different issue. Basically, I see the concepts of 'prime matter', and that of 'potential being' to be problematic -- that Aristotle got off on the wrong foot by treating 'change' as a problem, but not 'being'. Other metaphysical systems, in my opinion, deal with this better. Hence I find the idea (expressed by The Deuce) that rationality must go along with A-T to be highly questionable.

goddinpotty said...

@machinephilosophy -- sorry, are you somehow saying that materialism is not a type of naturalism?

Fine details of semantics aside, it seems clear that Feser is skeptical of efforts to have a naturalist or materallst philosophy that is not eliminativist when it comes to mind, intentionality, etc. If this is not the case, well, I apologize again.

For instance, on p253 of his book, he has some faint praise for Dennett's idea of "the intentional stance", but then says "...there is no way to interpret all of this as both genuinely explanatory and consistent with Dennett's naturalism...if he is serious...then he has essentially returned to an Aristotelian conception of final causality and thereby abandoned naturalism".

So, again I may be barrelling over some fine details, but it seems to me that Feser believes that the only way to combine mind and nature is through Aristotelian teleology, and by doing that you no longer get to call yourself a a naturalist (or materialist).

Please correct me if I've got it wrong.

The Deuce said...

SR:

Here is another possibility: all physical things are form/energy composites (where energy takes the form of mass for those things we can touch).

I don't really think that's a different position from hylemorphism. I think energy is encompassed within the overall concept of matter (just as materialists would consider energy to fall within the realm of the material, and not as a disproof of materialism). Certainly energy always exists in some form or other. Whether energy is a property of things with mass (and thus part of their form), or whether things with mass are a special case of energy (in which case exhibiting mass or not is part of their form), the metaphysical categories are the same.

1. Prime matter is formless.

Prime matter also doesn't exist. The concept of prime matter is merely an abstraction. Matter always exists in some form or other.

The Deuce said...

For instance, on p253 of his book, he has some faint praise for Dennett's idea of "the intentional stance", but then says "...there is no way to interpret all of this as both genuinely explanatory and consistent with Dennett's naturalism...if he is serious...then he has essentially returned to an Aristotelian conception of final causality and thereby abandoned naturalism".

The short answer is that the A/T concept of what constitutes "material" is different from what modern materialists mean by it. So in the A/T view, "material" things could indeed possibly have intentionality. It's the mechanistic conception of matter, devoid of intentionality, that's the issue. The "non-eliminative" accounts of intentionality end up being circular or collapsing into eliminativism precisely because they've defined "material" in such manner in the first place. They can save their arguments (or at least get them started) by expanding their definition of matter to allow for some basic intentionality, but doing so commits them precisely to the essentials of the A/T viewpoint. You really need to read and understand the whole book leading up to that section to get Ed's point, imo.

Anonymous said...

Dr. Feser,

You might scoff, but I've been following your blog for a few years now and I must say that I think you're the most able defender of traditional Thomism writing today. Most other writers in the area, it seems to me, have very specific focuses or are not able to situate Thomism in the contemporary intellectual landscape the way you are. I suppose your familiarity with atheism from bygone days is an advantage in this respect. Please keep writing more and more books! An intellectual autobiography in which you traced your conversion (gradual? sudden?) from atheist to Thomist (with other positions in between?) would be fascinating reading, I bet. Also, I very much hope your talk given recently at Steubenville will be published.

Brian said...

Don't let all of this praise go to your head, Dr. Feser. Maybe it's a good thing to have one or two trolls hanging out here.

machinephilosophy said...

"Isn't it more that the motivation to comply with it has been hard-wired into us by natural selection?"

Was the above statement also hard-wired into you by natural selection?

Foobobble the Absurd said...

Concerning the ultimate relation of God to morality, I think C. S Lewis puts it best in his essay, The Poison of Subjectivism:

But it might be permissible to lay down two negations: that God neither obeys nor creates the moral law. The good is uncreated; it never could have been otherwise; it has in it no shadow of contingency; it lies, as Plato said, on the other side of existence. It is the Rita of the Hindus by which the gods themselves are divine, the Tao of the Chinese from which all realities proceed. But we, favoured beyond the wisest pagans, know what lies beyond existence, what admits no contingency, what lends divinity to all else, what is the ground of all existence, is not simply a law but also a begetting love, a love begotten, and the love which, being these two, is also imminent in all those who are caught up to share the unity of their self-caused life. God is not merely good, but goodness; goodness is not merely divine, but God.

SR said...

@The Deuce,

Prime matter also doesn't exist. The concept of prime matter is merely an abstraction. Matter always exists in some form or other.

I thought it just doesn't exist outside of a form, not that it doesn't exist at all. Also, does that mean the "pure potential" isn't also "merely an abstraction"? If so, then isn't "potential being" also merely an abstraction?

What I'm getting at is that it seems to me that Aristotle came up with 'prime matter' as a kind of kludge to stop the question "what are things made of such that they can change". And it seems to me that just throwing the concept out (and with it the concept of 'potential being') can be achieved by replacing it with energy. But, as I said, that will require reworking the question "what actualizes what", and in doing so, one moves away from Thomism.

machinephilosophy said...

SR

I think the numbered proof just needs definitional assumptions of all the key terms, numbered prior to it, to take it to the next level and more clearly contrast it with Deuce's comments. The Pure Potential thing seems to have come in from nowhere, so I think that needs to be introduced somewhere earlier, but both proofs are interesting and I'd like to see further detailed development.

SR said...

@machinephilosophy,

Well, in Thomism, form/matter composition is just act/potential composition as found in physical objects. So prime matter is pure potential.

What I am trying to get at in all this is say that the whole business of potentiality as A-T has it is unnecessary, and came about, it seems, because Aristotle unjustifiably privileged 'things' over 'change'. One could instead start with 'change' as fundamental (especially given our present knowledge of physics) and work out a metaphysics that explains 'thingness' -- and here 'change' actualizes forms. But that too would lead to difficulties (e.g., what stays the same in order that awareness of change is possible). Another possibility, and this is my preference, is that one understands both 'thingness' and 'change' as what Coleridge calls a polarity: two forces of one power, each force opposing the other as it determines the other. (His names for the two forces being 'expanding life' and 'confining form'.)

But to go into that alternative in depth is not something I can, or want, to do here. If interested, read Owen Barfield's What Coleridge Thought. All I want to do here is disabuse the Thomists of the idea that they are working with compelling reasoning on indubitable assumptions. As is the case with any metaphysical system: indubitable assumptions are not available, and reasoning cannot be compelling because there is always some imprecision involved in the terms used. And so some other criteria must be at play in choosing one metaphysical system over another. What I opt for is that system that, as far as I can tell, gives the most promising account of "things in general", an understanding of which (to the extent it can be understood) points the way to salvation. In that regard, I find Thomism inferior to other possibilities, though of course vastly superior to any mechanistic system.

Anonymous said...

SR,

I think one of the reasons why A-T privileges 'things' over 'change' is because the former is ontologically prior to the latter. That is, there's ins't change, unless there's some 'thing' changing. Hence it isn't fundamental. Given that, how then can that which depends for its being on something else explain (in the relevant sense required here) the thing on which it depends for its being?

The Deuce said...

I thought it just doesn't exist outside of a form, not that it doesn't exist at all.

Well, since the very definition of "prime matter" is matter without form, and since matter never actually exists without form...


Also, does that mean the "pure potential" isn't also "merely an abstraction"?

Yes, in order to be an actual thing that exists, you must be actual. Something that has no actuality isn't actual, ie doesn't exist. Something that is purely potential can't actually exist by definition, because it isn't actual in any way.


If so, then isn't "potential being" also merely an abstraction?

Yes. "Sherlock Holmes", for instance, doesn't exist, only the abstract concept of him does.

SR said...

@Anonymous,

Buddhist metaphysicians have a 2000 year history of arguing against calling things "ontologically prior". For them, you are simply showing that you (along with most people) are caught within a delusion -- call it their version of Original Sin -- in ascribing "self-inherent existence" to things, as they put it. So who is right? The awakened mystics, or the Thomist philosophers? I bet on the former.

SR said...

@The Deuce,

So a contingent being is a mixture of a form and an abstraction? Or of existence and non-existence? Ok, I'm being cheeky, but let me spell it out.

All contingent physical beings are form/matter composites. But any particular being I consider can be understood as a form/subform composite. For example, what gives a knife the ability to hold an edge is a property of steel, which property is part of steel's form. Continuing on (the subform of steel's form, etc.) we must bottom out. What is the subform of an electron (if electrons are primitive)? Or if string theory is correct, of a string? An abstraction?

In short, I see no conceptual role for 'prime matter' other than as an arbitrary means of stopping the subform regression. Yet to say it doesn't exist "in itself" seems to contradict that it can serve as a means to stop the regression.

Hence it makes more sense to me to say that energy (as a name of God) is that which actualizes all things, keeping them in contingent existence. (A side benefit: God is also called Light.) Forms, in this scenario, are abstractions (ideas) that get actualized by non-form (God).

But back to the main point: what criterion is there that we can agree to in order to decide which view is the correct one?

Daniel Smith said...

SR,

I too have issues with the concept of "prime matter" - though probably due mostly to my own lack of understanding.

Another question that can be asked is this: If potential exists, then is it actual? The acorn has the potential to grow into a tree but it does not have the potential to become a beachball. One potential is real, the other is not real. One potential exists, the other does not exist. One potential is actual, the other is not actual. So then real potential is actual. (and I just made my head hurt!)

Then you can get into whether potential comes from God and, if it does, how does the cause give what it does not have? So then God must have potential.

This then boils down to the distinction Aristotle drew between active and passive potential. God has unlimited active potential in that he can do anything that is possible; but he has no passive potential in that he cannot be made to do anything and cannot be changed by anything.

For me then, understanding that God has infinite active potential helps make the concept of "prime matter" unnecessary. Since all potential comes from God, there isn't actually some mysterious non-thing called "prime matter" not existing out in the ether somewhere.

Of course, I'm only an amateur philosopher and realize that I am now rambling just above incoherence so I'll stop.

Anonymous said...

SR,

That Buddhists have been saying the contrary of what A-T holds for 2000 years isn't by itself reason for rejecting what A-T holds. You, sir, have to give us some arguments from the Buddhists against the reality of 'things' i.e., substances, of which other things like change/motion are predicated. Otherwise, I'm simply going to assume that the Buddhists are 'empty' headed on this issue. Oh, and If I had to choose between awakened mystics or Thomist philosophers on this score, I'd go with the latter. That's not to say that awakened mystics (of all backgrounds) are totally in the dark though or anything.

Crude said...

Maolsheachlann,

The majority of people in Western countries probably don't have a serious belief in God and haven't seriously practiced a faith for several generations,

Possibly, but neither have they broadly embraced moral nihilism or even naturalism. As others have said here, most people - whether religious or irreligious - tend not to think about things too deeply.

The majority may not have had a serious belief in God, but they also lack a serious commitment to naturalism or atheism. People just aren't very serious when it comes to these things nowadays, even in intellectual circles.

and yet the bottom doesn't seem to have fallen out of morality-- apart from sexual morality, and the validity of that morality is disputed by liberals anyway.

But would you expect otherwise re: 'disputed'? Any morality that has the bottom fall out of it is automatically going to be a disputed morality, I would think. Likewise, I don't think abortion should be considered an issue of 'sexual morality'.

At the same time, alongside that degrading morality we've seen a rise in the reach and capability of modern security. Let my next door neighbor become a moral nihilist and he may well behave around my property, if I've been picking up security cameras and weapons in the meantime.

I think I see what you're largely getting at, however. 'In principle you can have a society that still works even given moral nihilism. And in practice, being a moral nihilist doesn't mean you're committed to going out and killing the first child you come across.' But I don't think Ed is disputing that; it's a question of the consistency.

Even in your example, you mention 'moral progress' nowadays. But as Ed says, given Rosenberg's naturalism, there is no 'moral progress' to speak of anyway. Unless the words me 'well, what I like is now more popular'. Of course, there is no 'I' so...

goddinpotty said...

Buddhism, as I understand it, is not big on argument. Here's what Wikipedia has to say:

Buddha is said to have assumed an unsympathetic attitude toward speculative thought in general.[2] A basic idea of the Buddha is that the world must be thought of in procedural terms, not in terms of things or substances.[3] The Buddha advised viewing reality as consisting of dependently originated phenomena; Buddhists view this approach to experience as avoiding the two extremes of reification and nihilism.[4]

What "procedural" I think means is: follow these instructions (sit on your butt and observe your own mind in meditation) and you will arrive at certain truths. Or don't. But arguing about metaphysics is not going to achieve anything.

SR said...

@Anonymous @5:25pm,

My point isn't to say "my metaphysical system is true, and yours isn't." Well, maybe it is, but this isn't the place to argue the point. It is to say that in metaphysics there are no indubitable assumptions, nor are there compelling arguments, and so we need some other criterion to select among them. You apparently think that "thingness is ontologically prior to change" is an indubitable assumption. But you could just be making concrete that which is just a linguistic convention. Perhaps there is just faster and slower movement, so we can observe a portion of reality apparently moving against another portion, and we have just got into the habit of calling the slower parts "things that change".

What is moving, you ask? Consciousness, I reply. What of the observer of change? Well, if one presses on that far enough, one finds that this observer is formless, since anything with form is what is observed, not the observer. "All that acts and all that exists is a projection of that which reflects itself in itself, while making itself to be nothing." [Nishida, quoted in Robert Wargo's "The Logic of Nothingness"]. Is this empty-headed? Or are we deluded? I go with the latter, because I believe in Original Sin as that which has led us to impute inherent existence in projections.

SR said...

@goddinpotty,

Well, yes and no. The first step on the Eight-Fold Path is "right views". And that is basically learning about the lack of inherent existence in things, most importantly including the thing that one thinks oneself to be. But there is a difference between having the view and Knowing it, which is where the sitting on one's butt business comes in. Nevertheless, the philosophy reinforces the practice.

The Deuce said...

So a contingent being is a mixture of a form and an abstraction?

No, matter doesn't "mix with" form, the way two substances mix together. Matter and form together constitute a substance. If you saw a beach ball, would you say that there's rubber *and* a sphere there? No, of course not. The rubber is a sphere. The rubber in the shape of a sphere is one thing, not two things (rubber and sphericity) "mixed" together.


But any particular being I consider can be understood as a form/subform composite. For example, what gives a knife the ability to hold an edge is a property of steel, which property is part of steel's form.

Yes, I agree. A knife has form, and the metallic nature of the matter that constitutes the knife is part of that form. And it's metallic because of the forms of the atoms and molecules that make it up. And those particles have constituents that also have forms, and so forth. I'm not sure why that regression is supposed to be a problem, or why you think "prime matter" was dreamed up to stop it.


In short, I see no conceptual role for 'prime matter' other than as an arbitrary means of stopping the subform regression. Yet to say it doesn't exist "in itself" seems to contradict that it can serve as a means to stop the regression.

That's not what "prime matter" is for, as far as I know. It's simply this: We know that the same matter can take on different forms. You melt a rubber ball. Before the matter was in the form of a rubber ball, now it's in the form of a melted rubber blob. You eat a cucumber. The matter that made up the cucumber takes on different forms inside your body, some of it ending up as waste, some of it ending up as part of your body, and so forth.

So, the same matter can possibly take on a (probably infinite) variety of different forms. We can observe this and are able to grasp it conceptually. Hence, it's possible to conceive of that matter as distinct from any particular form, even though it never actually exists, and indeed cannot exist, without being in some form. We can also see that all the properties of any given piece of matter, everything that's *actual* about it, derives from the form that it's in, hence if (per impossible) it had no form, it would have no actuality and only potentiality. But to not be actual in any way is to not exist, hence it's impossible for prime matter to really exist. It's an abstraction - the result of conceiving of matter while abstracting away form.


Hence it makes more sense to me to say that energy (as a name of God) is that which actualizes all things, keeping them in contingent existence. (A side benefit: God is also called Light.) Forms, in this scenario, are abstractions (ideas) that get actualized by non-form (God).

I'm honestly not sure what you're trying to say here. You seem to be trying to say that energy is God, and has no form. But that's clearly incorrect right on the face of it. Energy, as described by modern physics, always has form. There's no such thing as just plain energy. There's kinetic energy, potential energy, electrical energy, etc. It falls within the philosophical category of matter as described by A/T. I think you've seriously misconceived the whole A/T worldview, and conflated the A/T philosophical category of matter with the concept from physics (that which has quantifiable mass) that happens to use the same term. Or are you likewise using a philosophical definition of "energy" that's different from the concept in physics?

SR said...

@The Deuce,

[Me:]So a contingent being is a mixture of a form and an abstraction?

No, matter doesn't "mix with" form, the way two substances mix together.

Sorry, should have said 'composite'.

And those particles have constituents that also have forms, and so forth. I'm not sure why that regression is supposed to be a problem, or why you think "prime matter" was dreamed up to stop it.

It is not a problem that it regresses. The problem is that in all steps except the last one, we can say of a physical composite being that it is composed of form which has been instantiated with a particular batch of subforms (a knife with this batch of steel, a batch of steel with these iron molecules, etc.). But what is the last step a composite of? Prime matter, we are told. And what is that? And whether or not it can exist by itself is beside the point. There has to be something formless composed with the basic particle or the entire physical world is form only, not a composite. Which is atomism, not hylemorphism.

Hence, it's possible to conceive of that matter as distinct from any particular form, even though it never actually exists, and indeed cannot exist, without being in some form.

Right, but what is it that is "in some form" in primitive forms? Assuming, for the sake of argument, that an electron is a primitive form, then what individualizes one electron from another? If you say "prime matter" then prime matter is not just an abstraction. If you say "nothing", then you have atomism. I suggest it is energy (made observable as mass, as spin, as charge).


[Me:]Hence it makes more sense to me to say that energy (as a name of God) is that which actualizes all things, keeping them in contingent existence. (A side benefit: God is also called Light.) Forms, in this scenario, are abstractions (ideas) that get actualized by non-form (God).

[You:]I'm honestly not sure what you're trying to say here. You seem to be trying to say that energy is God, and has no form. But that's clearly incorrect right on the face of it. Energy, as described by modern physics, always has form. There's no such thing as just plain energy. There's kinetic energy, potential energy, electrical energy, etc. It falls within the philosophical category of matter as described by A/T. I think you've seriously misconceived the whole A/T worldview, and conflated the A/T philosophical category of matter with the concept from physics (that which has quantifiable mass) that happens to use the same term. Or are you likewise using a philosophical definition of "energy" that's different from the concept in physics?

If energy (as it occurs in physical objects) falls within the A/T category of matter, then it is either a subform, i.e., a form/matter composite, or it is prime matter, no? If it is a composite, then there is something else that serves as the matter of observable energy -- call it ur-energy, and if that is not prime matter, repeat until it is. But, it is not just an abstraction. It is formless and supplies the actualization (the power) of the form. And, yes, I am suggesting that it can exist independently of any phyical object, though in that case it is not physical. It is spirit.

Remember, I am only putting this forth as an alternative to hylemorphism. Call it dynemorphism, perhaps. In equating energy (or ur-energy) with spirit (or Spirit) I see this as removing a conceptual problem that A/T has, namely the concept of matter. All that is left now is form and spirit, the formless. You may not like this alternative, leading as it does to, perhaps, panentheism or even pantheism, but is there any rational or empirical grounds for rejecting it?

grodrigues said...

@SR:

Prime Matter, being purely potentical, is the ultimate principle of individuation and what undergoes *substantial* change. Maybe some reading will help clear your confusions: http://www.thesumma.info/reality/reality6.php.

After stating the second thesis that act is limited by potency, Fr. Garrigou-Lagrange goes on to derive some consequences. Here are the most relevant:

"Matter is not form; it is really distinct from form. Let us look attentively at substantial mutation. We take two instances. First, a lion is burned, and there remain only ashes and bones. Secondly, food, by assimilative, digestive power, is changed into human flesh. These substantial mutations necessarily presuppose in the thing to be changed a subject capable of a new form but in no way as yet determined to that form, because, if it had already some such determination, that determination would have to be a substance (like air or water): and the mutations in question would no longer be substantial, but only accidental.

The subject of these mutations, therefore, must be purely potential, pure potency. Prime matter is not combustible, not "chiselable," and yet is really determinable, always transformable. This pure potency, this simple, real capacity, to receive a new substantial form, is not mere nothing (from nothing, nothing comes) ; nor is it mere privation of the form to come; nor is it something substantial already determined. It is not, says St. Thomas, [163] substance or quality or quantity or anything like these. Nor is it the beginning (inchoatio) of the form to come. It is not an imperfect act. The wood which can be carved is not yet, as such, the beginning of the statue-form. the imperfect act is already motion toward the form. It is not the potency prerequired before motion can begin.

This capacity to receive a substantial form is therefore a reality, a real potency, which is not an actuality. It is not the substantial form, being opposed to it, as the determinable, the transformable, is opposed to its content. Now, if, in reality, antecedently to any act of our mind, matter, pure potency, is not the substantial form, then it is really distinct from form. Rather, it is separable from form, for it can lose the form it has received, and receive another though it cannot exist deprived of all form. Corruption of one form involves necessarily the generation of another form."

SR said...

@grodriguez,

In my proposal, it is energy that provides instantiation. It does all that matter does in A/T except that it is no longer passive, which is to say that assignment of act and potential get switched. With this alternative hypothesis, potentiality is to be found in non-instantiated forms, which get actualized by being infused with energy.

In other words, I don't think I am misunderstanding A/T. Rather, I am suggesting an alternative that is, as far as I can tell, at least as rationally and empirically sound as A/T (it allows for things that change, though whether one wants to call those things 'substantial' is debatable), but does without an unobservable and purely hypothetical concept called prime matter. (Well, pure spirit is also unobservable, but it fits in as the observer.) Hence I see it as preferable to A/T. In fact, it does without the concept of matter entirely. What's not to like?

cl said...

"And this is where Rosenberg suddenly decides that ruthless consistency is perhaps something we needn’t be ruthlessly consistent about. For how does the purported falsehood of the factual beliefs underlying “sexism, racism, and homophobia” show that we can and should rid ourselves of them, when the purported falsehood of the factual belief underlying “core morality” (viz. the belief that there are intrinsic values) does not show that we can and should rid ourselves if it? Rosenberg never tells us."

It seems to me he can't. At this point, he either has to say "I'm being willfully inconsistent" and have his commitment to rationalism take a blow, or he must acknowledge his promulgation of a known falsehood and have his commitment to rationalism take a blow.

Awesome post, Ed. I'm a somewhat regular reader but this one inspired me to speak up.

Jon Haines said...

Dr. Feser I have been wanting to ask you for a long time about the qualifying clause at the end of Aquinas' treatment of why there is telos in Pars Prima Q 44 Article 4. Saying "Every agent acts for an end, otherwise one thing would not follow from the action of the agent more than another, unless by chance." Why the "Unless by chance/nisi a casu?" Doesn't that just negate everything he is saying? I think I have an answer which I posted on my blog here:

http://www.battleforthecoreoftheworld.com/2012/02/reflection-on-randomness-literally.html

Please let me know if you agree or what you think the reason was that Aquinas just seemingly undercut his argument by assuming that 'by chance' is not an option.