Thursday, January 31, 2013

Metaphysical middle man

As I’ve noted many times (e.g. here), when a thinker like Aquinas describes God as the First Cause, what is meant is not merely “first” in a temporal sense, and not “first” in the sense of the cause that happens to come before the second, third, fourth, fifth, etc. causes, but rather “first” in the sense of having absolutely primal and underived causal power, of being that from which all other causes derive their efficacy.  Second causes are, accordingly, “second” not in the sense of coming later in time or merely happening to come next in a sequence, but rather in the sense of having causal power only in a secondary or derivative way.  They are like the moon, which gives light only insofar as it receives it from the sun.

The moon really does give light, though, and secondary causes really do have causal power.  To affirm God as First Cause is not to embrace the occasionalist position that only God ever really causes anything to happen.  Alfred Freddoso helpfully distinguishes between occasionalism, mere conservationism, and concurrentism.  Whereas the occasionalist attributes all causality to God, mere conservationism goes to the opposite extreme of holding that although God maintains things and their causal powers in being, they bring about their effects all by themselves.  Concurrentists like Aquinas take a middle ground position according to which secondary causes really have (contra occasionalism) genuine causal power, but in producing their effects still only ever act together with God as a “concurring” cause (contra mere conservationism).  To borrow an example from Freddoso, if you draw a square on a chalkboard with blue chalk, both you as primary cause and the chalk as secondary cause are joint causes of the effect -- you of there being any square there at all, the chalk of the square’s being blue.  God’s concurrence with the secondary, natural causes he sustains in being is analogous to that.

Concurrentism alone, the Thomist holds, can adequately account for both the natural world’s reality and its utter dependence on God.  Occasionalism threatens to collapse into pantheism insofar as if it is really God who is doing everything that creaturely things seem to be doing, it is hard to see how they are in any interesting way distinct from him.   (Consider that a mark of a thing’s having a substantial form rather than an accidental form -- and thus of its being a true substance, with an independent existence, rather than being a mere modification of something else -- is having its own irreducible causal powers.)  Mere conservationism, on the other hand, threatens to collapse into deism, on which the world could in principle carry on just as it is even in the absence of God.  (For if, as the Scholastics hold, a thing’s manner of acting reflects its manner of existing, then what can bring about effects entirely independently of God can in principle exist apart from God.)
That secondary causes are true causes, even if ultimately dependent on God, is necessary if natural science is to be possible.  If occasionalism were true, absolutely everything that happens would, in effect, be comparable to a miracle and there would be no natural regularities to discover.  Physics, chemistry, biology, and the like would be nothing other than branches of theology -- the study of different sorts of divine action rather than of (say) the properties of magnetism, electricity, gravitation, hydrogen, helium, bodily organs, or genetic material as such.  And if God’s ways are inscrutable (as they must be given that He is pure actuality, subsistent being itself, etc.), then there could in that case be little reason to expect regularity in any of these spheres.  (As Alain Besançon has argued, a tendency toward an occasionalist conception of divine causality is part of what distinguishes Islam from Christianity – and this is no doubt one reason why natural science progressed in the West and stagnated within the Islamic world.)

But it is not just in the area of efficient causality that this middle ground position is theologically and philosophically essential.  Final causality too must be regarded as immanent to nature, and precisely because efficient causal powers are.  For Aquinas, there is no way to make sense of the fact that an efficient cause A regularly generates a certain specific effect or range of effects B -- rather than C, or D, or no effect at all -- if we don’t suppose that A inherently “points to” or is “directed at” B as toward an end or goal.  Immanent efficient causal power goes hand in hand with immanent finality or directedness; deny the latter and you implicitly deny the former, which is why Humean skepticism about efficient causality as a real, objective feature of the world followed upon the early moderns’ chucking-out of immanent final causes.

That means that potency as a real feature of nature would go out the door with immanent finality, since a potency is always a potency for some particular outcome, toward which it “points” or is directed.  If there is no finality inherent in nature, then there are no real potencies in nature either.  And if potency is not a real feature of the world, then there is no basis for an Aristotelian-Thomistic argument from change or motion -- that is to say, from the actualization of potency -- to the existence of an Unmoved Mover (or “Unactualized Actualizer”) of the world.  (Indeed, as I argued in my 2011 lecture at Franciscan University of Steubenville, which you can view on YouTube, there is in general no way to argue from the world to God if potency is not a real feature of the world.)

Immanent formal causes -- substantial forms or immanent natures, inherent in natural substances themselves rather than in some Platonic third realm -- are essential for the same reason.  For a thing’s substantial form is the immediate ground both of its efficient-causal powers and its “directedness” toward certain ends.  Hence if formal causes are not immanent to natural substances, neither are efficient causal powers or finality (i.e. teleology or “directedness” toward an end). 

The distinction between immanent or “built in” efficient, final, and formal causes on the one hand, and extrinsic or externally imposed causes on the other, is essentially coterminous with the Aristotelian distinction between “nature” versus “art” (which I’ve discussed in several places, such as here and here).  To appeal to an example I’ve used several times before, a liana vine (the sort of vine Tarzan swings around on) is a paradigmatic natural substance, whereas a hammock Tarzan might make out of living liana vines is a paradigmatic artifact.  The difference is that the vines have an inherent tendency to carry out activities like taking in nutrients through their roots, growing in certain patterns, etc., but do not have any inherent tendency to function as a hammock.  That is why, unless occasionally pruned, re-tied, and so forth, living liana vines will presumably not stay configured in a hammock-like way.  The hammock-like function is externally imposed on the vines, whereas the functions of taking in nutrients, growing in certain patterns, etc. are “built in” to the vines, just by virtue of being vines.  That is what it is for the vines to have the substantial form of a liana vine, whereas the form of being a hammock is a merely “accidental” form.  And that’s what it is for the nutrient absorption and growth patterns to be instances of immanent finality or teleology while the hammock-like function is an instance of extrinsic finality or teleology.  And precisely for that reason, efficient-causal powers like the ability to facilitate a restful sleep are not inherent to the vines as such, but result only from Tarzan’s having redirected the vines away from their natural tendencies and toward an end of his own.

Now just as attributing real causal power to secondary or natural causes (contra occasionalism) is in no way inconsistent with the claim that all causal power ultimately derives from God as First Cause, so too, insisting that final and formal causes are immanent to natural substances is in no way incompatible with affirming that God is the ultimate source of natural teleology (as the Supreme Intellect which directs things toward their ends, as Aquinas holds in the Fifth Way) and the ultimate source of the forms of things (insofar as, as Aquinas also holds, the forms of things preexist in the divine intellect as the archetypes according to which God creates).  The latter positions are essentially analogues, for formal and final causes, of the concurrentist position vis-à-vis efficient causes. 

Indeed, concurrentism requires such a view about formal and final causes, for the reasons already indicated.  If formal and final causes in no way derived from God, then neither would a thing’s efficient causal powers (which follow upon its substantial form and teleological features) depend on God.  We would be left with mere conservationism at best.  On the other hand, if formal and final causes were entirely extrinsic, imposed from outside by God but in no way inherent in things themselves, then neither would a thing’s efficient causal powers -- which, again, follow upon its form and its teleological features -- be inherent in it.  We would be left with an essentially occasionalist position.

This is why the Aristotelian-Thomistic position is, as I have argued many times, fundamentally incompatible with Paleyan “design arguments” and “Intelligent Design” theory.  Insofar as these approaches treat natural objects as artifacts, they essentially attribute to them merely accidental rather than substantial forms, and teleology or finality that is entirely extrinsic rather than immanent.  This not only gets the natural order entirely wrong insofar as it ignores the Aristotelian distinction between “nature” and “art,” but it leads (whether the proponents of these views realize it or not) to a conception of divine causality that threatens to collapse into occasionalism.  (Though other things such writers say tend toward the opposite extreme of deism.  For they hold that whether the order exhibited by natural phenomena has a divine cause is a matter of probability -- which entails that it is at least in principle possible that the formal, final, and efficient causes of things might lack a divine sustaining cause.  The Thomist view, of course, is that this is not possible even in principle, so that the existence of a divine source of formal, final, and efficient causality is not a matter of mere probability but rather of metaphysical necessity.)

Earlier I cited the moon’s illumination of the earth, and Freddoso’s example of the chalk, as illustrations of the idea that secondary efficient causes have genuine causal power of their own even though that power ultimately depends on something outside them.  Are there examples that might help us to understand how finality, teleology, or directedness can be both immanent to natural substances and yet dependent on a divine source?

There are.  Consider, first, a simple analogy.  A white wall on which ordinary sunlight is shining is white and not at all red.  A white wall on which red light is shining is in one sense red, but it derives its redness entirely from the light.  And a red wall on which ordinary sunlight is shining is in some sense red inherently, but the redness is nevertheless manifest only insofar as the light is shining on it.  Now compare God’s imparting of teleology to natural substances to the light’s shining on a wall.  Natural teleology as writers like Paley understand it -- something entirely extrinsic to nature -- can be compared to the redness a white wall has only when the red light is shining on it.  But natural teleology as Aquinas understands it is like the redness a red wall has when ordinary sunlight is shining on it.  The redness is really there in the wall, yet it cannot in any way manifest itself apart from the light.  (I ignore the scientific details as irrelevant to the purpose of the analogy, and I do not claim that the analogy is perfect, only suggestive.)

Or consider signs, linguistic and otherwise.  The word “triangle” and the symbol Δ can both be used to represent triangles in general.  Now neither one can do so on its own, for each by itself is a mere set of physical marks with no symbolic content.  A mind must impart such content to them.  Moreover, the connection between the word “triangle” and triangles is entirely arbitrary, an accident of the history of the English language.  And even Δ hardly resembles all triangles; for example, there are obvious respects in which it does not resemble right triangles, or green ones, or very large ones.  All the same, there is obviously something inherent to Δ which makes it a more natural symbol for triangles in general than the word “triangle” is.  Though both symbols ultimately depend for their symbolic content on a mind which imparts that content to them, Δ nevertheless has an inherent aptness for representing triangles in general that “triangle” does not.  Now compare God’s imparting of teleology to natural objects to a mind’s imparting symbolic content to signs.  For Paley and his conception of teleology as entirely extrinsic, natural objects are like the word “triangle,” whereas for Aquinas they are like Δ.  As with the word, the symbol Δ refers to triangles in general only insofar as that meaning is imparted to it, but there is still a natural connection between Δ and triangles in general that does not exist between “triangle” and triangles in general.  (Again, I do not say that the analogy is perfect, only suggestive.)

A final analogy is taken from linguistic representation specifically.  If we consider the words and sentences we speak and write, it is obvious that they get their meaning from the community of language users that produces them, and ultimately from the ideas expressed by those language users in using them.  Apart from these users, these linguistic items would be nothing more than meaningless noises or splotches of ink.  Still, once produced, they take on a kind of life of their own.  Words and sentences printed in books or recorded on tape retain their meaning even when no one is thinking about them; indeed, even if the books or tapes sit in a dusty corner of a library or archive somewhere, ignored for decades and completely forgotten, they still retain their meaning.  Moreover, language has a structure that most language users are unaware of, but which can be studied by linguists.  Still, if the community of language users were to disappear entirely – every single one of them killed in a worldwide plague, say – then the recorded words that were left behind would in that case revert to meaningless sounds or marks.  While the community of language users exists, its general background presence is all that is required for meaning to persist in the physical sounds and markings, even if some of those sounds and markings are not the subject of anyone’s attention at a particular moment.  But if the community goes away altogether, the meaning goes with it. 

By analogy (and here too I do not claim that the analogy is exact) we might think of the relationship of the divine intelligence of Aquinas’s Fifth Way to the system of final causes in the natural world as somewhat like the relationship of language users to language.  God directs things to their ends, but the system thereby created has a kind of independence insofar as it can be studied without reference to God Himself, just as linguists can study the structure of language without paying attention to the intentions of this or that language user.  The directedness toward certain ends is in a sense just “there” in unintelligent causes like the meaning is just “there” in words once they have been written.  At the same time, if God were to cease directing things toward their ends, final causes would immediately disappear, just as the meaning of words would disappear if all language users disappeared.  In this way, immanent teleology plays a role similar to secondary causes in the order of efficient causes, as I suggested above.  Just as secondary causes have real causal power of their own, even if it derives ultimately from God as First Cause, so too natural objects have immanent teleology, even if it derives ultimately from God as ordering intelligence.  (This is not intended as an exposition or defense of the Fifth Way itself, mind you -- for that see Aquinas.)

As I have said, to deny the immanence of teleology would be implicitly to deny that natural substances have real causal power and that there is any real potency in nature -- and thus to undermine the foundations of natural science and natural theology (or at least any natural theology that argues from the world to God).  It would also undermine the possibility of natural law.  For there can be such a thing as natural law only insofar as there are ends toward which human beings are naturally and inherently directed, and which we can therefore know by studying human nature.  If teleology is entirely extrinsic -- no more immanent to nature than the time-telling function is to the metal parts of a watch -- then it can only exist in the world, including human beings, insofar as it is imposed on it entirely from outside either by us or by God.  If by us, then ethics is essentially a human invention; if by God, then it is a matter of sheer divine command, which entails that we could know what is good or bad for us only by reference to those commands rather than by reference to human nature itself.  (I discussed this issue at greater length in an earlier post.)

In short, natural law, natural science, and natural theology presuppose the reality of nature -- nature as something which, though ultimately dependent on God (and necessarily so), nevertheless is distinct from God and thus can at least partially be understood without reference to God.  That is why we can know that certain actions are good for us and others bad whether or not we know that the former have been commanded by God and the latter forbidden by Him; it is why we can do physics, chemistry, and biology without constantly asking “What were God’s intentions in making [quarks, phosphorus, dandelions, etc.]?”; and it is why we can know that teleology and potency are real features of the world whether or not we know that there is a God  (so that the arguments for the existence of God from the reality of natural teleology and potency are not circular arguments). 

You might say that the natural order is the metaphysical middle man between human beings and God.  There are certain kinds of religious sensibility eager to cut out the middle man – to deny nature, or do dirt on it, or make it “respectable” by absorbing it into the order of grace.  Sometimes this takes a “high church” form – pantheism, say, or occasionalism, or Barthianism and some other strains of Protestantism, or the Catholic nouvelle theologie.  (I said something about some of these views in an earlier post.)  Sometimes it takes a “low church” form, as with Bible-thumping (or Quran-thumping) fideism, or the crude picture of natural objects as artifacts of “the ‘carpenter’ of cheap apologetics” (as Gilson once described the anthropomorphic god of popular design arguments).  What these otherwise very different views have in common is a tendency to deny that the natural order per se really has anything interesting or important to tell us -- to insinuate that we have to go straight to theology for that.  Zealous to honor the Creator, they end up insulting His creation.

And now, for you Boz Scaggs fans who have held on to the end, thinking this post had something to do with his classic Middle Man, here’s the best known cut from the album.


  1. "If occasionalism were true, absolutely everything that happens would, in effect, be comparable to a miracle and there would be no natural regularities to discover."

    That is not true: consider Berkeley. He says there is science and there are scientific regularities because God wants there to be, for our benefit. (Otherwise we would be in a world in which we could never learn.) God is like a video game designer who *could* create a totally chaotic world in which the players could never progress, but *doesn't* because he cares for the players.

  2. I'd never thought about the Fourth and Fifth Ways like that before. This is the best and clearest breakdown of the three types of divine causality that I've read--another excellent post. Also, I never get tired of reading Prof. Feser's Thomistic analysis of language. (I wish I could find even more in-depth material on it somewhere, but I don't know of any. If anyone has a recommendation, I'd appreciate it.) I'd just like to make a few random points, some of which may be of interest to those new to the subject.

    First, the occasionalist/fatalist tendencies in Islam were largely started by Al-Ghazali. Avicenna and Averroes held strange views, to be sure, but it would be difficult to accuse them of occasionalism. Also, occasionalism in Christianity goes back a ways, even though it's never had a seat at the table in the mainline tradition. Post-Thomist voluntarism looks a lot like Islamic occasionalism, to the extent that I've seen some scholars posit an influence. Martin Luther held a voluntarist position and denied free will--hence the heavy strains of occasionalism that run through Protestantism.

    Second, for those concerned that concurrentism must necessarily collapse into occasionalism, there's nothing to worry about. Prof. Feser's example of the chalk is not literal, but should be taken figuratively like his others: we are not merely God's instrumental causes. In strictly literal terms, God does not cause anything at all--we can only apply this term to him via analogy. In large part, this is because most of God's actions (save miracles) do not fall under Aristotle's ten categories, which include such things as "doing" and "being affected". God is totally above the ten categories, and so he is never "doing" anything; and for something to "be affected" by God is for a miracle to occur. Hence, when Prof. Feser and Aquinas say that God is the primary cause of motion, this means that God is giving motion in the same way that he gives existence. He is simultaneously creating and sustaining it, even though nothing is, technically speaking, affected by his actions. Certain misreadings of the First Way lead one to conclude that God is the "first mover" in the sense that he is the "highest mover" ("highest secondary cause"), determining all other movers rather than just giving them motion in the way that he gives them being.

  3. This is why the Aristotelian-Thomistic position is, as I have argued many times, fundamentally incompatible with Paleyan “design arguments” and “Intelligent Design” theory.

    That doesn't sound quite right to me. It's a bit like saying, "gravity is incompatible with Thomism" — if by gravity you mean the magical self-generating "gravity" that Krauss and Hawking seem to believe in, then of course, that isn't compatible. But even if you take care to explain that context every time, people will get the wrong idea. Anything in ID that actually is scientific is not a problem, as far it goes; and since a key point of ID is supposed to be that is it rooted in actual science, it is surely necessary to distinguish that aspect from the philosophical extrapolations therefrom. (Even if nobody much is promoting a good philosophical interpretation, one still exists, just as there is a legitimate metaphysical interpreation behind gravity, no matter how many physicists sign up for the magical mystery tour.) To be sure, this is a practical issue rather than a philosophical objection, but sometimes PR is important.

    Besides that, there is a philosophical point too: treating organisms as though they were mechanisms is not necessarily wrong. That is, we think of things as other than they really are all the time, because it's convenient, and to some extent (given our intellectual limitations) unavoidable. It's a problem when we confuse such substitutions for facts, but abusus not tollit usum. It can be perfectly appropriate for a scientist to treat things as though they reduced to their parts, because things act that way. A virtual molecule that is part of a living creature looks, as far as the scientist is concerned, like an independent substantial molecule.

    Consider a spilled pot of alphabet soup. If you enter the kitchen and see that the apparently spilled letters spell out the Gettysburg Address, you would conclude that someone had deliberately arranged them. Unless the letters actually spelled out the Gettysburg Address in Polish, in which case you might not notice. But if your statistics were a lot better than your Polish, you might notice suspicious patterns in the arrangement of the letters even though you could not assign any meaning to the words. Now, it would be wrong to conclude that they didn't mean anything, but that erroneous (and rather silly) view would not invalidate your statistical calculations. Similarly, if ID folks are able to draw valid scientific conclusions based on the (sometimes!) legitimate laboratory fiction that organisms are "just machines", then those conclusions should not be dismissed, or even seemingly dismissed because of attendant bad philosophy; rather, they should be reformulated in proper terms.

  4. Mr. Green,

    I've had thoughts along similar lines. I get that the Paleyian approach is ultimately metaphysically misguided.

    But I've understood ID to be something along the lines of an argument from the other guy's first principles, the point being to show that the conclusions don't follow even from his first principles (and even if the first principles are wrong). The materialistic evolutionist claims that life can be explained as an historical development of material factors mechanically related. Isn't it a legitimate response to say that even given those suppositions life can't be explained that way, anymore than there could be an explanation of the Gettysburg Address through soup spillage (to use your example)?

  5. rank sophist

    Check out Wilbur Marshall Urban's Language and Reality: The Philosophy of Language and the Principles of Symbolism. A shotgun with a silencer. I don't think he was a Thomist, but his works are very friendly to a number of fundamental Thomistic views and ideas, and Thomistic scholarship bears this out.

  6. Hmmm... now I seem to remember that Feser addressed the point I made in my last comment ("for the sake of argument" version of ID) in one of his ID posts a long time ago. I'd better look that up... since I don't like the type of commenter who repeats criticisms that have already been addressed!

  7. I said: It can be perfectly appropriate for a scientist to treat things as though they reduced to their parts, because things act that way.

    Actually, I'm not sure that quite gets at it the right way. The central idea is that order doesn't just come about for no reason. So a certain pattern and sequence of genetic mutations won't happen without some statistically sufficient cause. Or cosmologically, certain "finely-tuned" values will be scientifically unlikely unless there is a further explanation. (And this applies to physics, so there's no misapplication of mechanist reduction.) And there's the matter of the "language" of DNA, which has intentional content beyond what can be reduced to physics.

    David T: Isn't it a legitimate response to say that even given those suppositions life can't be explained that way

    I think that some extent, it has to be. Prof. Feser has addressed this before, and pointed out that replacing one wrong view with another can hardly count as a legitimate argument. I can't deny that; I simply say that it's not enough to stop there. (We don't say that Newton was wrong and so gravity is incompatible; we say that Newton was less wrong about gravity than Aristotle, but you still need to study Einstein to really understand it.) ID wants to show that physical reductionism does not comport with the empirical evidence. This can wrongly be explained by supposing extrinsic "artifactual" input from outside the system; or it can rightly be explained in terms of intrinsic teleology apart from that of physics. But the materialist claim really is wrong, and wrong in an observable way, so it will be possible construct a valid argument against it.

  8. Hey Dr. Feser,

    I took a look at two artilce by Freddoso, and At the end of the articles Freddoso claims that concurrentism is plagued with problems and the arguments made in its favor are not as strong as they seem. I was wondering if you could say something about these articles. Thanks!

  9. machinephilosophy,

    Thanks for the recommendation. I'll be sure to check that book out.

  10. @Gene Callahan:

    "That is not true: consider Berkeley. He says there is science and there are scientific regularities because God wants there to be, for our benefit."

    Feser referred not to "scientific" regularities but to natural ones. In what sense would the regularities in a Berkeleyan world be "natural"?

  11. My understanding (thank you George R.) is that the goal itself is the extrinsic component to intrinsic goal-directedness.

    Thus the Fifth Way succeeds as an argument for God's existence.

    If teleology is entirely intrinsic, the Fifth Way doesn't get off the ground.


  12. ----

    Here's an interesting reading list: Pro-Western Christianity

    Bookmark it because it's a valuable resource!


  13. Hi Dr Feser,

    I'm curious if you have ever come across the work of Rupert Sheldrake? I wonder what you would make of his morphogenetic field theory.


  14. The "Pro Western Christianity" blog has been reported for link spamming.

  15. The alexi de sadesky blog has been reported for spamming.

  16. Calm down Machine, maybe the second guy isn't reeaaaalllllyyy a spammer.

    Even he also has no blog too XD.

  17. Probably Sheldrake desperately straining for credibility. Reminds me of a certain hatted-twerp atheist author.

  18. Well ... doesn't sheldrake has a online TV program or something like that XD.

    It would be awkward he spamming stuff around here XD, espcially since I don't think he beliefs in classical theism.

    Now Hatted-twerp... ...... .... hmmmm it doesn't ring any bells in my very limited mind XD.

  19. Dr. Feser, does the Thomist theory of concurrentism only apply to "per se" events, or does it also apply to "per accidens" events?

  20. @scott: 'Feser referred not to "scientific" regularities but to natural ones. In what sense would the regularities in a Berkeleyan world be "natural"?'

    Oh come on, Scott, we both clearly are talking about "regularities in the world of nature"! The fact I chose a different word surely makes no difference!

  21. "Oh come on, Scott, we both clearly are talking about 'regularities in the world of nature'! The fact I chose a different word surely makes no difference!"

    Oh, come on, Gene. Of course the fact that you chose a different word makes a difference.

    The subject was occasionalism; you objected to Feser's claim that if occasionalism were true, then everything that happened would be tantamount to a miracle and there would be no natural regularities. Your objection amounted in effect to But that's not right, because Berkeley's God could make regularities appear in our experiences.

    Berkley's view that regularities are due directly to God is occasionalism plain and simple, and in proposing it as a counterexample you're just conceding Feser's point that under occasionalism there would be no natural regularities.

  22. Oh boy.

    Feser: Only a nature with independent powers can account for natural regularities.

    Gene: Not true: Berkeley's metaphysics accounts for things like the sun rising and rocks falling to earth perfectly well.

    Scott: Those don't count!

    Gene: Huh?

    Scott: They don't arise from a nature with independent powers!

    Scott wins by definition!

    Of course, Berkeley's metaphysics does not account for natural regularities as such regularities are understood in A-T metaphysics. It accounts for such regularities as they understood in Berkelian metaphysics. I readily "concede" this point.

    BTW, it is not right to say for Berkeley God "could" make regularities appear before us, as if this were a whim. Berkeley provides an argument as to why God *will*, and always will, do so.

  23. "BTW, it is not right to say for Berkeley God 'could' make regularities appear before us, as if this were a whim. Berkeley provides an argument as to why God *will*, and always will, do so."

    Yes, but again, the point you seem to be missing is the one Feser was in fact making: that those regularities would be comparable to miracles and there would be no natural regularities to discover. I don't see how he could have been much clearer about this, and it should be perfectly obvious from the context: he's arguing that occasionalism makes natural science impossible.

    The point is not that occasionalism can't account for the sun rising and rocks falling. The point is that because it can't do so in any way that involves the nature of the relevant entities or objects, it would mean that we wouldn't be able to learn what causes the sun to rise by studying nature itself. There would be nothing discoverable in the nature of metal that made it a better material for aircraft than, say, paper; all we could do would be to observe that God made certain properties appear together "regularly," and that would be the end of it. Those "regularities" might be "scientific" in an attenuated sense (indeed in the only sense allowable in such a world), but they wouldn't be "natural"; they would be attributable only directly to God, and (as Feser says) physics would be nothing more than a branch of theology.

    That's why "natural" is a better word to use here than "scientific," that's why Feser used it, and that's why your reply missed the mark. If that still isn't clear to you, I'm not sure what else to say, so I'll let it go at that.

  24. Criminy, Scott, if you insist on using *natural* as is meant by A-T metaphysicians, then *of course* only A-T metaphysicians will have *natural* regularities.

    In that case: So what? All your are saying is "only MY metaphysics has the implications of MY metaphysics."

    Berkeley has an idea of nature: nature is a world of ideas in the mind of God. This idea of nature produces its own idea of natural regularities: those regularities are a coherent, rational world of ideas.

    And by the way to call these regularities "miracles" is a substitution of name calling for thought: Berkeley can easily distinguish a miracle from a natural regularity in his system.

    All you keep doing is rejecting these as natural regularities because nature for Berkeley is not what nature is for an A-T metaphysician. I'm sorry, but: duh.

  25. "Berkeley has an idea of nature: nature is a world of ideas in the mind of God."

    Good. Then you should find it easy enough to answer the question I originally asked: In what sense would the regularities in a Berkeleyan world be "natural"?

    Since that is the question you need to answer in order to explain why your response effectively refutes Feser's point, why not turn your mind to it instead of critiquing arguments I haven't made?

  26. And I'll add that this -- "This idea of nature produces its own idea of natural regularities: those regularities are a coherent, rational world of ideas." -- is a good start. Had you replied with it when I asked you the question in the first place, this exchange would have gone very differently.

  27. Well, OK, Scott, I am willing to admit that I may have misunderstood your first reply: I took it as a mere quibble over words, and your question as rhetorical. But if you meant it sincerely, I should have addressed it earlier.

    OK, so why do you think the formulation you quote is merely a start of an answer, and not an answer, to that question? I.e., what more would you like to see me provide?

  28. Thank you for your gracious reply. Sorry about the misunderstanding.

    "OK, so why do you think the formulation you quote is merely a start of an answer, and not an answer, to that question?"

    Because Berkeley didn't believe that physical objects had any causal powers, and that's exactly the point Feser was making about occasionalism.

    Berkeley did attribute causal powers to spirits both finite and infinite, but that won't do the job here. In order for his metaphysics to constitute a counterexample to the claim that occasionalism doesn't allow for natural science in the sense Feser intends (and the sense of "natural" here is by no means unique to A-T metaphysics), it would have to be shown that Berkeley attributed causal powers to things like rocks and suns and so forth.

  29. "it would have to be shown that Berkeley attributed causal powers to things like rocks and suns and so forth."

    OK, Scott, but now we're back to where we were: *of course* Berkeley does not think those things have causal powers. If what you mean is "I will only allow things to be called 'natural regularities' if the theory that posits them says that 'natural' objects have causal powers," well then, naturally no theory that denies rocks etc. have causal powers can account for "natural" regularities. Similarly, if we say "No theory can account for ghostly apparitions if it does not posit them as being caused by actual ghosts," then we rule out all theories denying there are ghosts as explanatory of ghostly apparitions.

    Scott, I totally get your point: if we accept that "natural regularities" must mean "regularities caused by natural things with independent causal powers," then Berkeley of course posits no natural regularities.

    But that really signifies nothing more than "Berkelian metaphysics is not A-T metaphysics." I say we idealist have a perfectly good explanation of "nature" and "natural regularities" that stem from OUR metaphysics. *Naturally* -- get it? -- our view of what is "natural" does not agree with the A-T view -- that is why we are idealists and not A-T metaphysicians.

    So, yes, our view of what is "natural" will not meet your criteria. And your view will not meet ours. But I still say that, as the idea of "natural regularities" is commonly understood, we idealists have a perfectly good way of explaining them. In fact, a better way. :-)

  30. "I say we idealist have a perfectly good explanation of 'nature' and 'natural regularities' that stem from OUR metaphysics."

    And with that much, as an idealist myself, I'd agree. But Feser's claim was about occasionalism, not idealism, and Berkeley's own subjective idealism -- which I think commits him to occasionalism as least with regard to what we ordinarily call physical events -- still strikes me as an example rather than a counterexample. I think an adequate idealist metaphysics that allows for real physics has to allow that physical entities genuinely do have "natures" and real causal powers even if what we mean by "physical entities" turns out not to be quite what A-T-ists mean. (And the two views may not be very far apart in any significant respect. Neither objective idealists nor A-Tists would regard physical entities as completely independent; such independence is a matter of degree.)

    But I think we've probably exhausted the subject as far as this thread is concerned. Again, thanks for your gracious reply and your clarification.

  31. Really? XD

    U_U you two got interested in all that.

  32. Scott, one of my recent academic projects has been to demonstrate that Berkeley was NOT a "subjective idealist."

    And yes, I agree with you: these these views are not as far apart as they are often taken to be: I also think that A-T metaphysics can be well explained from within an idealist POV.

  33. "Scott, one of my recent academic projects has been to demonstrate that Berkeley was NOT a 'subjective idealist.'"

    That would be of interest to me, and I'd be eager to follow any links you'd care to post.

    As to the present point, does that also mean that, in your view, Berkeley's metaphysics provides a non-occasionalist account of the physical world that allows for it to be understood (relatively) independently of theology? If so, to what extent do you regard it as a genuine alternative to the sort of thing Feser is arguing for in the post that started all of this?

  34. My thanks to the posters here for excellent elucidation.

    [Is "persons who comment on blogs = posters" an acceptable connotation of the word "posters"?]

  35. Welll .... usually blogs has 1 post and several comments which IN THEORY are related to the post.

    However Forums, have 1 thread with multiple posts!

    So..... yeah maybe...

  36. C Emerson: [Is "persons who comment on blogs = posters" an acceptable connotation of the word "posters"?]

    Certainly. In fact, it's an acceptable denotation. A poster is anyone who posts a message, whether by dropping mail into a postbox, or by publishing it on the web via the HTTP "POST" command. Sometimes a "post" refers to the Original Post, as distinguished from comments; sometimes commenters' posts are distinguished from the main article; usually the context is clear.

  37. Are Scott or Gene Callahan still here? I'd love to ask you some more questions about idealism, or even better, read something you've written. If I don't see the answer here, please write me at Also, you may enjoy stopping over at