Sunday, March 3, 2013

Back from Lafayette


Back today from Lafayette, Louisiana, where I gave a talk (available for viewing via Vimeo -- or, alternatively, on YouTube) at Our Lady of Wisdom Church and Catholic Student Center, adjacent to the University of Louisiana at Lafayette.  I thank my host Fr. Bryce Sibley and the other folks at the Church and Center for their warm hospitality.  The fine group of guys you see above are some readers with whom Fr. Sibley and I had a nice evening of gumbo, whiskey, and philosophical and theological discussion. 

Blogging to resume shortly.  And yes, in answer to many inquiries, I will be writing up a response to David Bentley Hart’s recent piece on natural law in First Things.

34 comments:

vukovarac said...

I know it's hard to smile for someone who is constantly on the first lines of spiritual battle, but I hope you will put a photo with a smile next time :) This one is too small.

rank sophist said...

I loved watching your talk at the Science and Faith Conference last year--can't wait until I have time to see this one.

I also can't wait to see your response to David Bentley Hart. My two favorite contemporary Christian writers are about to duke it out.

Joe K. said...

Now I definitely regret not being able to make it! The gumbo, I mean. I love gumbo. No, but really, if anyone happened to record this, I'd love to take a look.

rank sophist said...

Joe,

Prof. Feser put a link to it right in his post.

Joe K. said...

Either that wasn't up before, or I'm blind. Either way, I feel stupid. And thank you.

DNW said...

Edward Feser writes,
"Blogging to resume shortly. And yes, in answer to many inquiries, I will be writing up a response to David Bentley Hart’s recent piece on natural law in First Things."


Here's something a bit puzzling in what Hart wrote. Maybe you or another, with more recent training in logic than mine, could clarify.

Hart says,

" 'Nature,' however, tells us nothing of the sort, at least not in the form of clear commands; neither does it supply us with hypotaxes of moral obligation. In neither an absolute nor a dependent sense—neither as categorical nor as hypothetical imperatives, to use the Kantian terms—can our common knowledge of our nature or of the nature of the universe at large instruct us clearly in the content of true morality."

"neither does it supply us with hypotaxes of moral obligation"

This is interesting since as near as I can tell what he is referencing is a technical aspect of some doctrine of modal subordination, rather than a mere propositional subordinate in some loose sense or a hypostatic abstraction http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hypostatic_abstraction

See for example this link which I grabbed online as the first clear reference I could find
[http://people.ucsc.edu/~abrsvn/Roberts89handout.pdf]

What would be helpful from my point of view, would be an elaboration from Hart on his notions of valid deductive entailment here.

Of course it obviously has to do with the relevance of factual conditionals in implying moral obligation.

But, since he is just later than this remark, also found dismissing the kind of mixed hypothetical syllogism grounding move Ayer [belatedly] allowed to those attempting to least salvage sense to moral imperative statements,he seems to be making a technical argument based on rules of valid inference.


If he has an argument which not only rules conditional arguments out of court because they are also based on propositions which say, an animal or an untutored human or nihilist is capable of ignoring or declining interest in, but also one which claims any such scheme of inference is logically invalid, I would be interested in seeing it.

Scott said...

@Joe K:

"Either that wasn't up before, or I'm blind."

Actually I'd almost managed to convince myself you wanted images of the gumbo. ;-)

Joe K. said...

Scott,

That's a reasonable conclusion. I mean, I really like gumbo. In fact, it's possible that the reason I didn't initially see the link is because I saw the word gumbo and got distracted. Watching the video now; thanks again, Rank.

rank sophist said...

DNW,

Hart is a continental philosopher, so I doubt that his argument relies on that type of analytic logic. As I suggested in the last combox, he's claiming that "nature" must be read in to before it can be read off from. You have to accept a set of views about nature and define nature in a certain way before it can provide categorical imperatives. Nature considered in itself is open to interpretation: you have to pick one of those interpretations before you can proceed. As soon as you acknowledge this, though, natural law automatically loses its claim to impartial universality, which proves Hart's point.

It's a pretty rock-solid argument, so I'm not sure how Prof. Feser is going to respond. I think he'd pretty much have to argue that all competing views of nature are patently false, which I personally think is impossible. I can't wait to see how this turns out.

Anonymous said...

I kind of admire the way Hart thinks. You can tell that he has a meticulous appetite for profundity.

James said...

"You can tell that he has a meticulous appetite for profundity."

Eh, well, I suppose. But I can't shake this image that comes to me unbidden when I read Hart — that of a thesaurus set aflame by the paper-on-paper friction of such vigorous use. The man must go through a dozen a year.

Anonymous said...

More likely, he's committed several thesauruses to memory. Dude's a walking encyclopedia. I bet he won the National Spelling Bee when he was a kid. Damn him.

Joe said...

I agree with Hart for the most part but he needs remember that nihilism undermines all rationality. Failure to make the jump from is to ought makes one insane. You might be able to live a superficialy moral life via emotivism but if you start thinking deeply and consistanly about philosophy you will end up like Heth Ledgers joker or even worse Alex Rosenberg.

Matthew said...

Rank Sophist,

Why think that a sound metaphysics involves simply "picking" between equally plausible options? Why think that we "read interpretations into" nature, rather than, as an Aristotelian might say, abstract its essence from it, and thus achieve true understanding?

Being nested in particular metaphysical presuppositions doesn't seem to me to make a theory "partial," especially if one can argue rationally for those metaphysical presuppositions, either from the logical necessity of its postulates or the self-defeat of the alternatives.

Perhaps alternative philosophies of nature can *also* claim a similar impartiality, but surely the sheer fact of their existence doesn't entail that all such views enjoy a similar degree of warrant, or that they're all really partial, or that the choice between them cannot be argued for using neutral tools of reason.

Brandon said...

Since the 'natural' in 'natural law' doesn't refer to any interpretation of nature but simply to the law's being natural to human reason, any criticisms of natural law theory based on questions about interpretation of nature automatically miss the mark: while interpretation of nature can and must enter into particular natural law arguments (particularly those dealing with highly specific contingent matters), natural law theory is not an interpretation of nature but an account of practical reason. Since Hart apparently has a broadly Kantian account of practical reason, it's unsurprising that he has problems with natural law theory; but these are issues that are well upstream from any questions of how to interpret nature (or, for that matter, any questions about whether others, like nihilists, can be convinced by the account).

The Kantian part of Hart's argument (on categorical and hypothetical imperatives) is very interesting and worth paying attention to, but it depends on Kantian assumptions about morality that no non-Kantian needs to accept -- i.e., it's exactly where someone leaning Kant-ward would need to begin in order to argue against natural law theory, but we only get the beginning of the argument in Hart's piece.

monk68 said...

Rank Sophist,

You wrote:

“It's a pretty rock-solid argument, so I'm not sure how Prof. Feser is going to respond. I think he'd pretty much have to argue that all competing views of nature are patently false, which I personally think is impossible. I can't wait to see how this turns out.”

I think you may be right concerning the need for a strong and exclusive argument for a single picture of nature, in order to undermine Hart’s position. However, I am more optimistic than you about the possibility of establishing the necessity of an Aristotelian-like conception of nature, over against all other options (I think, in fact, it can be done). At the level of natural science (in the broad scholastic sense) the essential Aristotelian argument is that the categories of form-matter, act-potency, substance-accident, the principle of causality, the principle of proportionality, etc. - which taken together give rise to knowledge of substantial natures and their finality - are all *necessary* ontological principles respecting the natural world, *in so far as* the natural world is to remain intelligible to the human intellect (of course, if one is willing to deny intelligibility, the whole conversational gig is up). Hence, the sense of *necessity* in such an argument would be limited and ordered to the preservation of *intelligibility*.

The boldness of the claim being that, *if* one denies one or more of the Aristotelian ontological fundaments (form-matter, act-potency, principle of causality, proportionality), it can be demonstrated through a series of arguments, that such a denial renders incoherent the explanation of things existing and happening in nature - which just is to render nature unintelligible. But such ontological fundaments give rise to knowledge of natural substances according to their formal - and therefore - final causality. Therefore, if their affirmation is necessary to preserve intelligibility, then one has in hand both scientific (in the traditional sense) knowledge of substantial natures, as well as knowledge of many (not to say all) of their natural ends. Accordingly, one would have access to an arguably objective framework for grounding "good" and "evil" predicates with respect to the activities of natures known according to ends. But, honestly, after reading Hart’s article carefully, I cannot tell if he is necessarily denying the possibility of the sort of demonstrative scenario I am suggesting, or if he is taking the further step of arguing that *even if* one could show the intelligible necessity of an Aristotelian-like conception of nature, one would not, thereby, be obliged to adopt such a conception as an objective, publicly-accessible, primary informant for ethics. Like you, I am interested in Ed's reply.

James said...

Until recently I hadn’t devoted much thought toward ethical theory, which seemed uniquely boorish among areas of philosophy. University coursework gave me the impression that ethics involves the construction of ad hoc arguments in support of foregone conclusions. Eventually I realized how I’d come to accept a caricature; by that point the psychic damage may have been done. Regardless, that’s just a long way of apologizing for my ignorance on any salient points.

Since gaining a hobbyist’s interest in Catholic philosophy — I can’t manage to stir myself beyond a sort of deism — I remain unable to understand how the tenets of natural law become obligatory. Sidestepping the discussion of Hart’s broader historicist perspective, he seems to hit directly at where my understanding breaks down: what response could you give someone who just doesn’t care whether or not he behaves contrary to his own natural ends? I could see at least two possible ways forward:

1) Argue that human flourishing (in the natural law sense, as distinct from a maintained feeling of contentment) would be more psychologically or spiritually fulfilling. But this seems like a nonstarter if the demands of natural law bind categorically, even aside from being clearly not the case at least some of the time.
2) Argue that the failure to strive toward human flourishing is irrational. But it seems that all natural law theory can provide is a conditional: if you seek to attain whatever your natural ends, then you should behave this way.

I accept arguendo that the use of reason can inform me about my natural ends, but I don’t see how reason can (or cannot) oblige me to care about those ends. If someone could explain this so as to make it intuitively graspable by an interested layman, I’d be much obliged (ahem).

monk68 said...

James,

It seems to me that the linking of intelligible finality with behavioral norms functions something like a first principle. *If* one would be happy, *then* seek realization of human capacities. If one denies any connection between "happiness" and the fulfillment of rationally known human ends, there seems to me no deeper argumentative well from which to draw, since such a person is giving up the only possible non-subjective basis for "good" and "evil" behavioral predicates available to the human race (short of an appeal to the credibility of some divine revelation). This is so because, denying any ethically informing framework outside the human person, the only available options must lie within. And to argue about morality within anything less that a publicly-accessible framework seems destined to reduce to a will-to-power. It strikes me as analogous to the existential situation which one encounters when reasoning with someone who rejects the law of non-contradiction.

In that scenario, discursive argument in the strict sense is over, leaving only the possibility of a dialectic by which one attempts to help his interlocutor see the practical implications of his denial. Likewise, would one have to dialogue with someone who rejects natural finality as a foundation for ethics. Why avoid gluttony and eat in accord with the ends of nature? Because gluttony causes the experience of discomfort in the moment, and as a habit, adds weight to the body, impairing locomotion and access (or pleasurable access) to many other enjoyments, and so on: the appeal at this stage being no longer aimed at rational demonstration of ethical first principles; but rather, at the rubrics of practical experience. The only other potentially non-subjective option I can imagine is to attempt an argument based on publicly available grounds of credibility for some embracing some revelatory claim, which in its turn, informs ethics. But this strikes me as far more laborious than defending natural law ontology, and remains exposed to the same sort of radical ethical nihilism you mention.

Brandon said...

Hi, James,

I think the big question in this sort of argument is what it means to say that something 'binds categorically'. Kant (from whom we get the terminology) held that morality had to bind categorically because he held that morality had to have a necessity independent of any possible experience. If one takes this to be what is meant, natural law theory involves an outright denial that morality requires this kind of necessity. Likewise, Kant rejects hypothetical or conditional imperatives because he thinks that they cannot possibly have the relevant kind of necessity.

I take it that natural law theorists would argue both your (1) and (2). But (2) would be the primary one. I suppose the question would be, "In what sense does the primary precept of natural law, 'Accomplish and seek good and avoid evil', have any kind of conditional form?" It doesn't seem to do so, and even if it had some implicit conditional form to it, the further question would be why that is not enough.

'Caring about', though, is a matter of motivation; it depends on practical reasoning but also depends on habits and tastes, sanction (reward and punishment), and education. Natural law theory can only cover the practical reasoning part.

DNW said...

Some very perceptive comments here.


Joe said,

" ... he needs remember that nihilism undermines all rationality."



Matthew said,

"Being nested in particular metaphysical presuppositions doesn't seem to me to make a theory "partial," especially if one can argue rationally for those metaphysical presuppositions, either from the logical necessity of its postulates or the self-defeat of the alternatives. "


Brandon said,

" ... the 'natural' in 'natural law' doesn't refer to any interpretation of nature but simply to the law's being natural to human reason, any criticisms of natural law theory based on questions about interpretation of nature automatically miss the mark ..."


Monk said,

"of course, if one is willing to deny intelligibility, the whole conversational gig is up). Hence, the sense of *necessity* in such an argument would be limited and ordered to the preservation of *intelligibility*.

The boldness of the claim being that, *if* one denies one or more of the Aristotelian ontological fundaments (form-matter, act-potency, principle of causality, proportionality), it can be demonstrated through a series of arguments, that such a denial renders incoherent the explanation of things existing and happening in nature - which just is to render nature unintelligible ..."


Monk said,

" ... to argue about morality within anything less that a publicly-accessible framework seems destined to reduce to a will-to-power. It strikes me as analogous to the existential situation which one encounters when reasoning with someone who rejects the law of non-contradiction."


But James says,

" ... I don’t see how reason can (or cannot) oblige me to care about those ends ..."


And Brandon said,

'Caring about', though, is a matter of motivation; it depends on practical reasoning but also depends on habits and tastes, sanction (reward and punishment), and education. Natural law theory can only cover the practical reasoning part."



Nice work ... seriously.

Scott said...

@James:

"I accept arguendo that the use of reason can inform me about my natural ends, but I don’t see how reason can (or cannot) oblige me to care about those ends. If someone could explain this so as to make it intuitively graspable by an interested layman, I’d be much obliged (ahem)."

There are some good replies already, but I'll give it a whirl.

In my view that's a bit like saying, "I accept that reason can inform me that 2+2=4, but I don't see how reason can oblige me to believe it." In one sense it can't, but in another, more important sense it's already done so by informing you that it's true. You can question whether a particular conclusion is genuinely warranted by reason, but if you agree that it is so warranted and yet still feel free to disbelieve it, then in what sense were you "reasoning"?

The idea in natural law theory is that your "good" is in some sense appointed by your nature. Once you know that something or other is one of your natural ends, then you know what, to that extent, constitutes your "good."

Reason(ing) doesn't, can't, and isn't supposed to make you "care about" that good. It's basically telling you that at some level or in some respect, by nature you already do care about it, and that if at some other level or in some other respect you care so little about it that you act in a way that thwarts it, then you're at war with yourself.

dguller said...

One also assumes that when someone says that they don’t care about X, that they are being honest. Perhaps they care about X, but happen to care about Y more, and so rationalize away the importance of X in order to acquire Y, even though they care about X all along. Human motivation is highly complex, after all, and most dynamics of will occur outside of our conscious awareness, making most of the antecedents of volition largely inscrutable.

The Thomist account of intellect and will is yet another part of the system that I like, i.e. that the will always acts towards what the intellect understands to be the good, but that a faulty understanding, whether due to intellectual failure or appetitive distortion, can result in the illusion that a higher good is actually a lower good, and vice versa, which subsequently results in a poor choice in a given situation.

DNW said...

Scott says,

"In my view that's a bit like saying, "I accept that reason can inform me that 2+2=4, but I don't see how reason can oblige me to believe it."

Or psychologically assent to it, or affirm it, or "feel it" or acknowledge any importance to it.

I think Catholics may have a word for that attitude extended even to the theoretical threat of hell.


Yes, you can always say "So what?", as long as you have the physical power to do so. "So what?"


The dynamic reminds me a little of a scene in Yojimbo:

"Sanjuro: You're all tough, then?

Gambler: What?

Kill me if you can!

Sanjuro: It'll hurt.




Sanjuro to Gamblers: "No help for fools"

Various Internet sources

rank sophist said...

A lot of interesting comments. I'd just like to say, though, that you guys don't seem to realize that Aristotelian essentialism is itself an interpretation of the world. Why not accept Hegelian essentialism, or modal essentialism, or conceptualism, or some form of nominalism? Why not one of the many other options? Certainly it isn't because they are all self-refuting. Monk was largely correct, in my view, when he said that something like Aristotelian essentialism has to be true for reality to be fully intelligible. But who says it has to be? Who says that someone should buy into the system that leads to morality over the one that leads in nihilism, or the one that leads to science over the one that leads to skepticism, or the one that leads to order over the one that leads to chaos? Logic itself certainly doesn't tell us this. So what does? Common sense? Why should someone accept that?

There are all sorts of ways to view the world within the bounds of logic. It's impossible to judge their value from a neutral, impartial ground. Certainly, we could argue that Aristotelian essentialism makes science possible, and this would convince those who want science to be true. But this is not a neutral logical deduction: it's culturally informed logic. Neutral logic can't tell us why we should accept one position over another, as long as both are logically coherent. The same happens when we ask why one should accept common sense, morality and the rest. You can only answer by appealing to views rooted in history and culture. So, on the topic of using natural law, it only applies among those who already share certain cultural views about the necessity of morality, intelligibility and so forth.

You could argue that those who reject your arguments are irrational, but A) this begs the question and B) it's irrelevant. If someone accepts moral nihilism, then you are not going to convince him otherwise using logic alone.

DNW said...

Rank Sophist writes:

"Neutral logic can't tell us why we should accept one position over another, as long as both are logically coherent. The same happens when we ask why one should accept common sense, morality and the rest. You can only answer by appealing to views rooted in history and culture."

Ok, I think that we all understand that you are saying that internal systems of logic and proportion (to quote Grace Slick) can't arbitrate the choice between possible value systems (however originating), because there is no values neutral compulsion to prefer one end over another, and supposedly no standpoint from which to render such a judgement.

You would presumably assert that we merely have an instrumental power sufficient to evaluate effective implementation of - what completely arbitrary? - ends, rather than those ends themselves; or even of rating the prospect of cutting off any possibility of selecting ends, as an end itself.

Logic then, is limited to the realm of the canons of internal consistency, and reason becomes a matter of evaluation as to the efficacy of any given, or presumably arbitrary, program.

Yet it's also clear that you probably do grant that some patterns of behavior and some principles of action are commensurate with a greater likelihood of the human organism's survival and reproduction than others.

It's the "objective value" of this survival that you think can be questioned.

And so it "can", especially by nihilists.

So, what then are the internal implications of a lived out nihilism?

Certainly the implications or results on average, could be considered as "objective facts or consequences" in themselves.

A suicide is a suicide, a dead man is a dead man, either here or in New Guinea or Japan.

The question then, is whether you see or grant an underlying or even operative parallel, which has been repeatedly suggested on this blog, between nihilism on the one hand and the denial of the law of non-contradiction on the other?

I think that you probably do.

You agree there are at least some non-culturally relative facts, you just don't think that any particular "values" can be transculturally deduced from them.

How then do values originate in the first place? Mightn't we be confusing ourselves a bit here by creating a fuzzy imaginary kingdom and then in failing to find it's supposed location ?

How would for example, a values nihilist respond on the question of his "right" say, to breathe, if you placed your hand firmly over his nose?

Would his reactions shed any light on the subject of either rights or values?



" If someone accepts moral nihilism, then you are not going to convince him otherwise using logic alone."

The bracketing of the question as to whether that is a matter of psychological pathology rather than moral reasoning, I'd say that he who accepts "moral nihilism" is in fact outside the moral system entirely.

It's the equivalent of shutting off the switch, not rerouting the power.

Brandon said...

Who says that someone should buy into the system that leads to morality over the one that leads in nihilism, or the one that leads to science over the one that leads to skepticism, or the one that leads to order over the one that leads to chaos? Logic itself certainly doesn't tell us this.

Surely it does. It's not possible for a system to lead to nihilism; for a system to conclude in nihilism it would have to do so according to some rational value or standard, the existence of which would be a refutation of any genuine nihilism. It would be essentially the same problem as claiming that we can know that universal skepticism is true, or claiming that my intelligible account of the world implies that nothing is intelligible, or making the claim my system of the world implies, as part of its order, that there is no order to the world. These are all incoherent. They're refuted by the principle of noncontradiction.

The only kinds of nihilism, skepticism, irrationalism, etc. that are not inconsistent with logic itself are local ones. But they do that precisely because there are principles with respect to which they can be regarded as coherent and intelligible.

But natural law theory by its very nature purports to provide the general principles of the practical logic of human ends and means that among other things serves as the foundation of moral reasoning. This is why Hart is right that the two serious rivals to it are Kantianism and some version or other of the Nietzschean Will to Power: Kantianism is a position that in a sense also purports to give the practical logic serving as the foundation of moral reasoning, but it denies that any such logic can be a logic of human ends and means; and the (relevant sort of) Nietzscheanism holds that the foundation of moral reasoning is human ends and means, but these themselves have no practical logic. Hart's argument boils down to an attempt to force a choice between these two, but he appears to do so by begging the question: on the intellect side, he appeals to Kantian principles, and on the will side, he appeals to some kind of will-to-power approach. But this is just to assume that natural law theory is false in its account of practical reason (which is intellect insofar as it decides for will).

The whole issue of persuasion or convincing people is utterly irrelevant to the question unless one assumes will-to-power as the underlying basis of ethics. This point does not depend on anything to do with natural law theory; it's the whole point of the argument in Plato's Gorgias, and is part of the argument in the Republic, that if practical matters are to be tested by persuasion, this is equivalent to accepting that might makes right. (They both also argue that there is no logically coherent way to develop this view -- that any attempt to do it ends up contradicting itself. Whether one accepts the Platonic argument or not, we need to be quite clear that the very coherence of any attempt to judge these matters by whether they will persuade nihilists or the masses or anything of the sort has often been called into question, and thus it should not be proposed as if it were an obviously unexceptionable neutral test. There are longstanding arguments that as a test it is quite exceptionable and entirely question-begging.

rank sophist said...

DNW,

I'd like to restate that I don't believe in relativism or nihilism. I am most definitely in the Thomist camp on many issues. I just happen to endorse Hart's claim that tradition and logic are inseparable. Outside of the "battleground", so to speak, of traditions vying against each other, there is only empty, valueless nihilism. Modern Thomists seem to forget that Christianity is not a logical but rather a historical tradition: the early Christian writers took from Greek philosophy because it fit what they already believed, not because it was true independent of any tradition. In ancient times, this in fact had to be defended, with Augustine famously using the "gold from the Egyptians" argument to show that Christians were justified in using pagan language to elaborate on revealed truths. Now the complaints happen when Christianity doesn't fit the pagan (or neo-pagan) logic. Blame the Enlightenment, I guess.

As for the way values originate, I think Hart is largely on the money when he says in that essay that they appear for the most part through historical events, but also from "beyond" history and logic. That is, a combination of historical events, God and the "prince of this world", and their influence in various cultures over time. I recommend his book Atheist Delusions for a fuller explanation of this position.

As for the reaction of a dying nihilist, the scenario is clearly irrelevant. From a logical standpoint, why should we care about this reaction? The fact of his struggling tells us nothing about the value of it. Only if we jump into natural law (and the cultural notions in which it was formed) can we say anything about it one way or the other. For the nihilist, not even a utilitarian "average" is going to bridge the gap between fact and value.

Scott said...

@rank sophist:

"Monk was largely correct, in my view, when he said that something like Aristotelian essentialism has to be true for reality to be fully intelligible. But who says it has to be? . . . Logic itself certainly doesn't tell us this."

As Brandon has said, surely it does. The necessary and sufficient condition for intelligibility is consistency, and logic certainly tells us that contradictions can't be true.

Now, if someone wants to reject logic altogether, I suppose s/he can try (and thereby run head-on into the usual problem that the presumed falsehood of the law of non-contradiction doesn't and can't rule out its also being true). But so far as I can see, logic most certainly does tell us that reality is "fully intelligible" in the most basic and important sense. The possibility of genuine doubt doesn't arise until we look at stronger conditions like "coherence."

rank sophist said...

Brandon,

Surely it does. It's not possible for a system to lead to nihilism; for a system to conclude in nihilism it would have to do so according to some rational value or standard, the existence of which would be a refutation of any genuine nihilism.

Hart has argued (and I agree with him) that all genuine nihilism originates from the attempt to achieve totally neutral logic: reasoning based on "nothing", without any cultural, historical or supernatural ground. In his view, the Enlightenment was thus the most nihilistic event in history.

Scott,

As Brandon has said, surely it does. The necessary and sufficient condition for intelligibility is consistency, and logic certainly tells us that contradictions can't be true.

Contradictions are not the same as nihilism. A contradiction is nothing; nihilism is the belief that all attempts to create meaning are false. Also, being logically consistent (or coherent, as I keep saying) does not keep one away from nihilism.

Anyway, I think I'll drop this until Prof. Feser posts his response to Hart. No reason to wear out the topic before it really starts to get interesting.

Brandon said...


Hart has argued (and I agree with him) that all genuine nihilism originates from the attempt to achieve totally neutral logic: reasoning based on "nothing", without any cultural, historical or supernatural ground. In his view, the Enlightenment was thus the most nihilistic event in history.


As a historical position this is pretty standard; this doesn't tell us anything about nihilism in logical terms, though.

Scott said...

At first look I agree with Brandon's comment above, but I also agree that there's no point in wearing out the topic before Feser makes his reply.

DNW said...

Rank Sophist says,

" As for the reaction of a dying nihilist, the scenario is clearly irrelevant. From a logical standpoint, why should we care about this reaction? The fact of his struggling tells us nothing about the value of it. Only if we jump into natural law (and the cultural notions in which it was formed) can we say anything about it one way or the other. For the nihilist, not even a utilitarian "average" is going to bridge the gap between fact and value.
March 5, 2013 at 3:42 PM "


"As for the reaction of a dying nihilist, the scenario is clearly irrelevant ..."

Suffocating, not necessarily dying ... Yeah, sure, it's irrelevant if you manage to actually place yourself outside the enveloping system of conditioning contexts both biological and historical which I took you as arguing that one - or at least those to whom you are referring to - could not in principle escape.

I also do not suggest we should "care", but rather observe the process of the biological construction of "values". (said only partly tongue in cheek)


It seems to me that you are offering several rather different kinds of refutations to the notion that there are undeniable moral truths.

The first is akin to the traditional Meadian argument, or any other cultural relativism argument which asserts that as a matter of observed fact that all men do not manifest the same moral values. And because of it, it therefore follows that any assertion that there exist objective moral principles is shown to be false.

Of course if it were shown on those same interpretive grounds that there were in fact deep principles held in common by all men despite the manner in which they might be locally expressed or "dysfunctionally" disregarded, or that those who did not recognize such principles had biologically rooted reasons and could therefore be reckoned as a different species, then that particular argument would fail.

But that failure still would not matter to someone who held that the simple fact that it was possible for him to express emotional indifference to a moral proposition, meant that it was therefore shown on that basis alone not to be a legitimate and objective deduction.

Nor would it satisfy the person who demanded that the grounding of the principles of human interpersonal relationships be located outside of the human or even biological and physical frameworks in which they are found in order to be considered objective.

Finally, as I see it, there simply is no different kind of answer available to give to someone who says "I don't care, and you cannot make me care" than there is to give to someone who demands it be explained to him why it is that an all powerful God cannot make a rock which is too heavy for him to lift.

Now I suppose Hart may have a point as regards Thomists overreaching. I don't know, and I am not trying to preserve Thomism per se.

You may of course argue that no disembodied reason, uninterested in the existence of men, could come up with moral principles binding on all men. But I am not sure what kind of reasoning or pure logic that would be in the first place.

James said...

A bit late, but I wanted to thank everyone who took the time to respond to my questions. That (as well as Feser's most recent post) gives me a fair bit to chew on.

Alan Aversa said...

I liked the end of your talk where you mentioned objections from modern science. What you said is very inline with Pierre Duhem's separation of modern mathematical physics from metaphysics; see his "Physics & Metaphysics" or Stefano Bordoni's When Historiography Met Epistemology: Duhem’s Early Philosophy of Science in Context (esp. ch. 3, pp. 65 ff.).